The Northern Powerhouse’s man on the ground

February 1, 2016

James Wharton was named Minister for the Northern Powerhouse in May 2015. The MP for Stockton South speaks to Alison Cowie about the North’s potential, devolution and the Government’s reaction to the mothballing of SSI at Redcar in October

Chancellor George Osborne set out his vision for a Northern Powerhouse in a speech at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry in June 2014.

In that speech, he said: “Let’s bring our Northern cities together, so they’re bigger and better than anyone can be alone… to create a Northern Powerhouse, not to rival the South, but to be its brother in arms as we fight for Britain’s share of the global economy.”

He named transport, science and innovation, the arts, and devolved political power as being the main drivers to achieve a Northern Powerhouse and redress the North-South economic divide.

By the autumn of that year, Chancellor Osborne announced a £7-billion Northern Powerhouse pledge, including £6 billion for improved transport, and funding for a number of centres of innovation across the North (including a National Centre for Ageing Science and Innovation in the North East) and for a Great Exhibition in the North to showcase the best Northern art, culture and design.

Chancellor Osborne returned to the North soon after the Conservatives’ victory in the General Election and reiterated his commitment to the Northern Powerhouse in a speech in Manchester on May 14, 2015.

He spoke to the audience at Victoria Warehouse about the need to create clusters of industries and collaboration between talented people, to empower more than just the cities of the North and rebalance opportunities for people across the whole of the UK.

In the post-election cabinet reshuffle, James Wharton MP was also appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and Minister for Local Growth and the Northern Powerhouse.

The Conservative Member of Parliament for Stockton South who read law at Durham University would be responsible for the Northern Powerhouse, the European Regional Development Fund and the Enterprise Zones and Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Speaking about the Northern Powerhouse, Minister Wharton says: “The potential in the economy across the North of England is huge. As an area, there are 15 million people and as a standalone economy, it would be the ninth biggest in Europe. But for too long the North hasn’t maximised its potential.”

He continues: “The Government is absolutely determined to build the Northern Powerhouse so that the North can achieve its potential and is driving economic policy to ensure it happens.”

Key landmarks for the Northern Powerhouse after Minister Wharton’s appointment included the opening of Hitachi’s £82-million train manufacturing facility in Newton Aycliffe, and the announcement of a £3-billion investment for Yorkshire and the North East’s transport systems.

Minister Wharton was also seen advocating Chancellor Osborne’s visit to China in September 2015 to pitch for £24-billion worth of investment in the North.

But, perhaps, Minister Wharton’s most important role so far has been ensuring devolution deals in the North East.

Promising greater decision-making powers at a local level, similar deals had already been signed in Manchester and Sheffield. The failure to achieve the same in his own constituency area of Tees Valley and the neighbouring North East Combined Authority area could have created much embarrassment for the man in charge of the Northern Powerhouse – for which devolution is seen as essential.

Any fears he may have had, though, were quelled when both areas signed proposed agreements in October 2015.

Speaking of the awarding of devolution deals in the North East, Minister Wharton says: “I was incredibly proud. These deals pave the way for areas to reach their economy potential.

“Too often in the past, governments have looked at the issue of devolution and have tried to apply a one-size-fits-all template. But we saw the rejection of that with the ‘no’ vote for the Labour Government’s Regional Assembly Referendum in the North East in 2004.

“Our devolution deals have created the opportunity for over £3 billion of investment to be put into the Northern economy. The North East has been awarded up to £900 million and Tees Valley up to £450 million. [The Government] believes this will deliver a step change in local economic performance and I am certain this will benefit not only the North East region but the whole of the North as well.”

But James Wharton hasn’t been without his challenges since being appointed Minister for the Northern Powerhouse.

The Labour Party continue to attack the Northern Powerhouse agenda for its lack of real results. And the Government was heavily criticised for not saving Redcar-based steelworks Sahaviriya Steel Industries UK (SSI) which closed in October resulting in 2200 job losses on Teesside.

Minister Wharton himself was vilified in the local media and branded as “pathetic” by Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop for not attending a parliamentary debate on the future of the UK’s steel industry; he responded by saying he was travelling to Durham at the time to speak to a key senior minister to discuss the issues surrounding SSI.

Minister Wharton comments: “[The Government] recognises the concerns of communities in the North East, particularly in light of the recent closure of SSI. In response, the Government has announced a support package worth up to £80 million and is working to invest in the future of the Tees Valley economy.

“In addition, Lord Heseltine has been appointed to chair a new inward investment programme for the Tees Valley, following the closure of SSI, which will work closely with UK Trade and Investment, Tees Valley Unlimited LEP and the local Redcar SSI Taskforce to oversee negotiations with potential investors, maximise opportunities and speed up their delivery.”

The Northern Powerhouse is also often criticised for being too focused on the North West. Minister Wharton, however, maintains that the Northern Powerhouse doesn’t exclude other areas such as the North East.

“It’s not a project for the North West, but one for the whole of the North of England,” he says.

“I was born in the North East and I am a Teesside MP so I absolutely want to see the North East play its part in the Northern Powerhouse.

“The devolution deals present the real opportunity for the North East regions to get more power and more control of their future.

“I also want to see the people and communities in the North of England taking ownership of the Northern Powerhouse agenda and keeping the positive momentum into this year.”

The Autumn Statement, announced on November 25, 2015, brought more economic commitment to the North.

Chancellor Osborne announced an agreement between the British Business Bank and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) across the North of England to create an Investment Fund of over £400 million.

The North East LEP was also awarded a separate fund of over £100 million, and a further £150 million was allocated for smart Oyster-style ticketing across the Northern region.

Priorities for Minister Wharton in 2016 will be to continue to champion the Northern Powerhouse in Whitehall, across the North and in the North East.

“I will work tirelessly with colleagues from across the whole of the Government to help devolve more powers to local areas,” he states.

“In the North East, I will continue a dialogue with local political and business leaders from every political persuasion to help unleash the ambition in the area so it can reach its full potential and play a leading role in the Northern Powerhouse.”

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