Jake Berry is Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, and is MP for Rossendale and Darwen.
In my present post, I’ve visited many businesses – but, all too often, am whisked from a Ministerial car into a boardroom without getting the time to talk to the people on the firm’s shop floor about how the Government’s policies are changing their lives day to day.
That’s why, four years on from George Osborne’s extraordinary speech in Manchester where he launched the Northern Powerhouse, I hit the road, Top Gear-style in my Volvo estate, for a 739-mile tour of the North. No civil servants, no script and no sound bites – just conversations and questions with over 500 people in the canteens, constructions sites, steel mills and offices of the Northern Powerhouse about what they, the people of the North, want to see next.
I’m a born and bred scouser and don’t shy away from a challenge, which is why I kicked off the tour in Blyth Valley, a constituency held by Labour for nearly 70 years. Tharsus is one of the North’s fastest-growing companies specialising in robotics, and local workers’ main concerns were about improving their local transport infrastructure.
There was also real excitement about the opportunities presented by Brexit, and a view that “it doesn’t matter what the deal is like, we just want to Government to get on with it”. Civil servants in Whitehall would be surprised to realise that the people of the North, the majority of whom voted to leave the European Union, are braver than they can possibly understand.
Next stop was British Steel in Middlesborough South & East Cleveland – again, a constituency which has been Labour since its creation, but was won by the Conservatives last year. No other result could better epitomise the pivot of support to the Conservatives and away from both the metropolitan elite and Labour than Simon Clarke’s stunning victory in 2017.
The British Steel brand was reborn in 2016 when Greybull Capital bought the iconic manufacturer from Tata. In just two years, they have turned the company round, returning it to profit. So it was with some pride that I pulled on my orange and blue British Steel overalls to talk with Simon to the workers at the Skinningrove Steel Mill.
These gritty steel workers were bending and shaping steel made in Scunthorpe into track profiles for Caterpillar vehicles. If we were in the US, the company’s biggest export market, these workers would be the buckle on Trump’s rust belt. Strikingly, these very same individuals main concern was his recent protectionist tariffs on the products they are producing. This traditionally Labour-voting area is now looking to Simon and the Conservatives to deliver on Brexit and to create a Northern Powerhouse economy in which they and their families can prosper and grow.
Just a few years earlier, these same workers had taken a pay cut and watered down their pensions to give British Steel the chance to prosper and give it the bright future I saw on my visit. They represent for me the true spirit of the North. Our ‘have a go’ pragmatic approach to business is something that the whole of the United Kingdom can learn from.
The final Powerhouse Live stop for day one was Whitby, to see the largest privately-funded infrastructure project in Europe. Sirius Minerals is sinking a 1.5 km mine shaft, amidst the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, to open up a hundred-year seam of super-rich mineral-based fertiliser. It will then be moved by a 36 km-long underground conveyor to Teesport, from where it will be shipped and sold around the globe.
Only in the North, with our buccaneering spirit of entrepreneurship, could this unlikely project be under construction within a few years. Compare this to the trials and tribulations of building the HS2 railway line through the Chilterns or even the expansion of Heathrow. It is us, the people of the North, who are the doers, the makers and the disruptors who get on with it to drive forward Britain’s economy.
Since the Northern Powerhouse was launched in 2014, we have added £20 billion to the northern economy. Nowhere on my tour was that more apparent than my first visit on Day Two, when I met workers at Immingham, the UK’s largest port.
Immingham adds £2 billion to the UK economy every year. Whilst the media seem obsessed with a doomsday scenario of a ‘no-deal Brexit’, these pragmatic port workers are confident that, deal or no deal, they will continue to handle the goods coming in and out of the UK in an smooth, orderly and efficient manner.
The rest of Day Two was spent in Yorkshire with visits to Hull, Shipley and Rotherham. In Shipley, we were joined by the brilliant local MP, Philip Davies, at Produmax – a business basing its corporate philosophy on “Engineering Superheroes”, building parts for the Dreamliner Super Jumbo. The factory had a younger workforce than many, and the questioning focused on skills.
For too long, the brightest and the best from the North have felt they have to head south to London for the highly-paid secure jobs that we all want to see flourish in our economy. Business like Produmax are changing this. Investment in technology and, crucially, in its people is creating world class materials here right here in the North of England. It’s just these sort of high value-added products that show we can be the best in world producing.
If the Northern Powerhouse is truly to succeed, we must focus in on vocational training.The continued focus of the Government on lifetime learning is playing a real part in creating the Northern Powerhouse economy. It is worth noting that this has not happened by accident. Tony Blair used to talk about 50 per cent of all school leavers going to university. For the businesses I have visited to continue to grow, we need to keep the focus on Labour’s other, forgotten 50 per cent.
Day Three started with visits in what I like to think of as the heart of the Northern Powerhouse – Lancashire. Firstly, JJO plc, one of the UK’s largest kitchen manufacturers, and then on to BAE Systems in Salmesbury for more questions from workers with the local MP, Nigel Evans.
My final stop was at the Cammel Lairds shipyard in Birkenhead, Merseyside – an area not particularly known for its rampant support of the Conservative Party. As a boy growing up in Liverpool during the 1980s, I used to look at these iconic dry docks and sheds of from the other side of the river. Now, over 30 years on, Cammell Laird has 2000 people on site building ships such as the £200 million research ship, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, more commonly known as ‘Boaty McBoatface’. In the meeting room, I was faced by 40 of the yards finest workers. The first question was about Margaret Thatcher and the 1980s – so this was going to be tough!
But every other question from the shipbuilders was about the future of the yard; their passion for their trade, pride and ambition for their ships abounded. They had heard of the Northern Powerhouse and they are part of it. Ships built in the North are taking on the world and winning, but for the North to succeed we need to get behind them. I am proud as a Conservative to have pulled on my Cammel Laird uniform, and seen the craft of British shipbuilders, and for me they are the ultimate test. For them, it’s not about politics – it’s about place. If we back them, they will back us.
So at the end of my 739 mile tour I have learnt this: the Northern Powerhouse is an idea that can capture the imagination of the people of the North. We now have a once in a generation opportunity to capture the political initiative as a Party.
We need to seize this chance to make the North as powerful and as prosperous as possible. We’ve already made a good start, but we need to push on. Nothing I do as Minister for the Northern Powerhouse is about pulling London or the South down; rather, it’s about lifting up the North, so that we all succeed. But more money and more powers need to be taken away from Westminster and given directly to the North for us to improve our transport, increase our skills, create better-paid jobs and more secure employment.
The old politics is breaking down. When in hushed tones, dockers and steel workers tell you they are backing the Conservatives because we back them, it tells me – let’s do more.