What exactly is the Northern Powerhouse? It sounds like a great name for a rock venue, perhaps in one of those old coal-fired power stations they’re now decommissioning. But no, it is supposed to be a historic multi-billion pound government project to create prosperity in the north of England and redress the wealth imbalance with the South East.
Personally, I think it’s a political con trick. Without the PR burnish of initial capitals, we have had a northern powerhouse before. It was the vast swathe of England from the Trent to the Tyne that powered the rest of Britain with its coal and heavy industry and night shifts that turned the sky red. What happened to that powerhouse? It was erased from the landscape by a series of Conservative governments paranoid about the power of the unions, and I can’t help seeing the new George Osborne-style Powerhouse as a twisted joke. Osborne and the rest of his Bullingdon Club chums are probably laughing up their starched cuffs.
Yet northern councillors, most of them Labour down to their red socks, are falling over themselves to sign up to a Tory project that promises massive rail and road building projects while making local authorities more autonomous.
They should remember that the words Northern Powerhouse were minted at the same foundry as political slogans like the Big Society and We’re All In This Together. For those with long memories, there was also John Major’s Back To Basics (which unfortunately for him coincided with a series of cabinet sex scandals, leading Westminster wags to rename it Back To My Place).
So what about the Big Society? Google defines it as a political ideology “integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism”. If you’re none the wiser, after six years of David Cameron as prime minister we can see it is really code for “you’re on your own, mate, don’t expect help from the state”. This became clear as soon as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition began slashing budgets for local councils and forced many services to depend on donations, charities and unpaid help. It continues apace with, for example, more libraries in Yorkshire than anywhere else in the UK threatened with either closure or being run by volunteers.
As for We’re All In This Together, thanks to Iain Duncan Smith – the unlikeliest whistle-blower in history – we know that this slogan is also a grand deception, with benefit cuts being targeted unevenly and unfairly.
So when do we get proof that the Northern Powerhouse is another gimmick? When rundown council services become so bad people query whether it’s right to bore a 18-mile road tunnel beneath the Pennines estimated to cost £6 billion, and build the multi-billion HS3 rail line to shave 14 minutes off the train journey between Manchester and Leeds. And when the devolution of powers to big cities – Devo Manc sounds to me like another piece of PR – means that councils take the rap for raising more money to fill the hole in steadily decreased funds from central government while continuing to degrade their services.
I can’t help seeing the Northern Powerhouse as part of an ideological long game by the most politically malevolent government since Victorian times.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe