The director of think-tank IPPR North, Ed Cox, has repeatedly challenged the Government to maintain its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse agenda to help boost economic growth. Rob Parsons reports.
Ed Cox, a URC minister in his adopted Manchester, says a large part of his journey as a Christian has been tied up with how local communities can support and empower one another to run things.
So it’s perhaps not a surprise that on this side of the Pennines, he is better known as the leader of a think-tank that champions a radical departure from the heavily centralised existing model of government to a system where power is in the hands of local and regional organisations.
Mr Cox has since 2009 led IPPR North, an organisation that has repeatedly challenged the Government to live up to its stated aims of boosting economic growth with its much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse concept.
Most recently, its research suggesting a huge disparity in levels of planned infrastructure spending between the North, especially Yorkshire, and London, put it on a collision course with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.
Writing the following day in The Yorkshire Post, Mr Grayling argued that its analysis “woefully distorted” the levels of government investment in the North by focusing on figures beyond 2021 and ignoring several large spending areas.
Every Transport Secretary in my nine years in this job has done their best to defend figures, but the bottom line is they are not defensible.Ed Cox
Mr Cox tells this newspaper that he “stands absolutely” by the methodology of the report, which was picked up widely by the media and contradicted the Government’s own analysis showing a more even distribution in the next four years.
“We think we are presenting people with the full picture of the nation’s plans to spend on transport infrastructure, rather than the partial picture which I think government prefer people to consider,” he says.
IPPR North is yet to get a meeting with Mr Grayling to discuss the issue, but Mr Cox says he is not surprised at the Minister’s response.
“Every Transport Secretary in my nine years in this job has done their best to defend figures, but the bottom line is they are not defensible.
“The only way we are going to see a change in the regional disparities in transport spending is for government to make new commitments to expenditure in northern transport priorities, that is the only way a transport secretary is going to be able to properly address the issue.”
Like others, the former advisor to the local government secretary bemoans the lack of revenue-raising powers enjoyed by Transport for the North compared with its London counterpart.
This means that even though it has done a “fantastic” job in setting out its plans for the next 30 years, he says the strategic transport body will still be reliant on central government for funding.
In recent months the Government’s enthusiasm for the concept of a Northern Powerhouse, a phrase first uttered by George Osborne in 2014, has been questioned by critics.
And while Mr Cox says he is happy it “retains an enthusiasm and interest for using the term”, of more significance is the renewed enthusiasm among northern businesses for addressing the long-term issues affecting productivity in the region.
“I think it’s crucial that we see the Northern Powerhouse in terms of the empowerment of the North, not going down to London with a begging bowl and asking for bits of funding here and there.”
Despite some positive signs in recent years, he feels the North still lacks the tools to drive forward the kind of economy it needs.
Central to this is the issue of devolution and how it plays out in the long-term as well as the creation of a vision for how a future northern economy might look, rather than just trying to create a “new London in the North’.
He describes the failure of Yorkshire to reach an agreement on devolution as disappointing, but says the size of the region means a deal would represent “real devolution” as opposed to the more symbolic arrangements in Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley.
“There is a huge opportunity with the One Yorkshire deal, to bring together a group of people and a region at scale, you could really talk in serious terms about proper devolution,” he says.
“The amount of tax redistribution that needs to take place, across a region as big as Yorkshire, would enable it to have fiscal devolution in a way that much smaller regions would not be able to have, so that presents a huge opportunity for Yorkshire, if it can pull off that kind of deal.”
Moreover, it would be part of the long-term trend he predicts for the next 100 years, involving the fragmentation of the nation-state and increased importance of global government institutions combined with more powerful regions and city regions.
2016’s vote to leave the EU was, he says, a reaction to this, but raises the issue of what people in the North were looking for with the oft-repeated refrain of wanting to “take back control”.
“Was this just about taking back control over immigration, taking back control from Brussels, or actually was the fact that so many people want to take back control a message to Westminster about devolution and wanting to have power and autonomy much closer to them, whether that is city regions, or the North as a whole?
“I think there are some really interesting times ahead as the general public explores and perhaps finds a pan-Northern identity.
“I think Yorkshire has an important part to play in that because clearly there is a very strong identity around Yorkshire. It may well be that it’s the Yorkshire identity that becomes crucial in driving forward a new federal England, if that’s the future we are heading towards.”
North’s early years problem
Ed Cox says one of the North’s biggest problems is the development of children in their early years before they start school.
“Of the poorest children across the whole country, poor children in London are starting school 12 percentage points better off than poor children in the North,” he says. “This isn’t about poverty, this is about what is happening in those early years.” The reason for this is unclear, he says, but austerity has made things worse.
“This could possibly get worse but we don’t know yet,” he says. “The reason this is so important is that we definitely know from the research that whatever challenges you face when you enter school you will carry those through your schooling career.”