Why we must ‘level up’ the North in landmark Budget – Rachel Reeves

THE medical emergency and economic threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak mean next week’s Budget is of critical importance. It is a moment to be brave, not cautious.

By Rachel Reeves
Saturday, 7th March 2020, 5:45 am
Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves says next week's Budget must deliver for the North.
Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves says next week's Budget must deliver for the North.

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It’s a big test for Richmond MP Rishi Sunak. He will have been Chancellor for less than a month when he delivers his first Budget since taking over from Sajid Javid, who quit after refusing to be bullied by the PM and his advisers.

However, despite lacking experience and being widely unknown, the new Chancellor must not shirk the vital decisions to tackle the underlying challenges we face from under-investment and a lack of political ambition.

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Richmond MP Rishi Sunak, the new Chancellor, will deliver next week's Budget.

Of course, there needs to be help in the Budget to tackle the health, economic and social impacts of what increasingly looks like a pandemic, starting with emergency funding for our NHS and care system.

The newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer must offer support for the worst-hit businesses if they see big falls in customers or an inability to operate because of lack of staff or components that are shipped in from affected countries.

Support is also needed for workers who do not qualify for statutory sick pay such as those on zero-hours contracts and the self-employed – a growing number given Tory austerity and the failure to tackle employers who exploit their workers.

With warnings that 20 per cent of the workforce could be off sick at the peak, no one should be punished financially for doing the right thing and staying at home and self-isolating.

Council leaders in Leeds are still pressing for £23m to complete the city's flood defences.

The Prime Minister said as much this week, but a five-week wait for Universal Credit if you can’t work is not the same as providing support.

And workers were already facing a tough time before the virus struck.

I outlined the problems in a pamphlet called Everyday Work I published last month with the support of the GMB union, based on interviews with workers from social care, to steel, to bar work.

It was clear to me from those conversations that while most people enjoyed their jobs, there is growing insecurity coupled with a feeling that they are under-appreciated, suffering from years of deteriorating pay and conditions without being listened to by their employers.

The Chancellor needs an agenda for improving pay and working conditions, particularly for those in parts of the North which are still dealing with the legacy of deindustrialisation.

This mustn’t be just a holding Budget. After years of political paralysis there can be no more excuses for delaying long-overdue efforts to boost growth and wages. And we don’t need more reviews or consultations. We need to start investing in our crippled infrastructure and strained public services now.

On that theme, it is crucial the Chancellor delivers the missing £23m needed to protect Leeds from future flooding. As my colleagues Holly Lynch, Rachael Maskell and Dan Jarvis – and Tory Craig Whittaker – powerfully put it in Parliament this week, there must also be support for other badly flood-hit Yorkshire towns and cities, including Calderdale, York and Doncaster.

Last month, I was on Harden Moor in the hills above Leeds and Bradford to see the work being done to plant trees and build “leaky dams” to slow the flow of water into the River Aire and cut the risk of flooding. As I stood there in the snow, it was a reminder of the power of nature and the impact the climate emergency is having on us all.

Beyond flood defences, our creaking rail services need far greater investment and the Budget presents a golden opportunity to do that.

Following the collapse of Flybe this week, there has never been a more important time to focus on improving the connections between regions. The airline played a key role in regional connectivity and I hope other carriers will step in quickly to fill routes not served by train. But most of all we need a frequent, fast and reliable rail network to link up all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Nationally, we need to see a commitment, backed up with funds, from the Government on Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 beyond Birmingham to allow us to unlock the full potential of our region. And please, let’s make sure that when we invest in big projects we use British steel and build the trains here, creating jobs and apprenticeships and taking advantage of our great manufacturing heritage.

The economic cost of delaying investment will be far higher than spending money now, especially given the low rates at which the Government can borrow money and the urgent need for improvements.

Despite Boris Johnson’s repetition of his “levelling up” slogan, and rhetoric about tackling the long-standing regional inequalities, we have yet to see any real evidence of that happening.

Yorkshire and the North have so much to offer. It is time the Chancellor and the PM followed the example set by Channel 4 who are coming to Leeds. There is no reason why the House of Lords could not be relocated to Yorkshire and why not the Treasury too? It would improve policy-making and bring investment too.

We have heard a lot of talk about levelling up. On Wednesday we will find out just how much - or how little - the Chancellor is prepared to do when it comes to tackling the North-South divide and powering the economy of the whole United Kingdom.

Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and chair of Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.