Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Horse Shoe Inn, Crook, Co. Durham
We’ve just passed the first three-month mark of a Boris Johnson-led majority Conservative Government, and this week will hit the first hundred days. And, as all the best stories begin, what a first hundred days it will have been.
They’re often over-used – especially now – but the most well-known phrases associated with (though not necessarily actually spoken by) the two Prime Ministers who epitomised the post-war consensus now resound across newsprint: “Events, dear boy, events” and “a week is a long time in politics.”
The first six weeks played out in strict batting order – we got Brexit done by January 31st following the Prime Minister’s landslide victory in the general election. He small then set about re-shuffling his Government for the next stage of the Brexit negotiations and to push his future ‘levelling up’ agenda.
The next major point for the Government was due to be first Budget of his administration. But, as we now know, that has been overshadowed by the biggest public health crisis in generations.
On Coronavirus, we have a choice – to listen to the experts, like our own Chief Medical Officer, or believe the bitter spiteful drivel of the likes of Ian Lavery MP (now a self-appointed expert on Coronavirus as well as how to maximise the cash you can get out of a union with no members) and put people’s lives at greater risk. I have confidence that our Government is taking the right action that will, in the end, be shown as the best protection for our most vulnerable constituents across the UK.
I was impressed by the comprehensiveness in which Rishi Sunak squared-up to the economic and fiscal implications of Coronavirus issue in the budget. Extra funding for our NHS with more there if needed, rate cuts for businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors, a cash grant for small businesses. ESA for the self-employed and sick pay from day one, £500 million for local authorities to distribute directly to vulnerable people. All immensely sensible policies.
But, as the coverage of Coronavirus has rightly dominated the media, it overshadowed the rest of the budget. Obviously, I’d like to extend my personal thanks to the Treasury team for the reversal, in full, of the awful EU Regulation 2018/1832 that was crippling my local motorhome manufacturer, Elddis, in North West Durham. But this was a Budget which, beyond Coronavirus, set out the clear, long-term direction in which the Chancellor and Prime Minister are determined to take the country.
Crucially, it was a Budget that really started to build flesh on the bones of the ‘levelling up’ that has been so much talked about by Prime Minister. There was a flurry amongst lobby hacks who tried to paint it as a “Gordon Brown”-style budget – full of big spending increases with hidden tax rises.
It wasn’t. In fact, when you scratch the surface it was a budget with a real Conservative core. Aside from big election guarantees being delivered: NHS funding, 50,000 more police, increased school funding, this wasn’t a budget driving up day-to-day spending. It was a budget with long-term investment in mind that could really help drive positive long-term change in the economy.
Aside from those key areas of public spending, it’s now really very clear what ‘levelling up’ means. It means connectivity, it means transport, it means further education – in short, it means spreading opportunity. One of the best things about having Sunak as Chancellor is that he represents a large Northern rural seat and he gets the real stranglehold that lack on connection places on opportunity.
The extra £100 billion in infrastructure spending to connect communities by road – including buses, which run on roads, something shadow transport ministers seemed to fail to grasp in the Commons – and rail (integrating cycling and walking where possible) cannot come soon enough. The best way to spread opportunity is to better connect people to the places where they are. This creates a huge and virtuous circle of growth, productivity and further opportunity.
Just as the first passenger steam train connected Stockton to Darlington in 1825, almost 200 years later it is Darlington station that hold the key to North Eastern rail connectivity. Unlike most of the other major rail lines, the East Coast Mainline is only two-track from Northallerton. This is largely because of the bottleneck at Darlington which throttles not only inter-city but also local commuter rail transport between the Tees and the Tweed.
The fact that Darlington station was explicitly addressed in the budget is a great sign of how swiftly the Chancellor has mastered the detail of his brief. This isn’t about raw cash, it’s about investment in the right places to open greater opportunity.
In the South East, if you live in Stratford and work in Ealing and then get a new job in Romford, there is no issue with switching. If you live in Crook, the second largest town in my constituency and get a job offer in Consett, 14 miles away in the North of my seat, it’ll take you an hour and a half each way and a change of buses in Durham to get there and will pay three times the price of taking a hopper fare in London.
This lack of transport restricts opportunity, particularly for young people or those getting back into work. If we get connectivity right, we get people into better jobs, driving productivity.
Another major concern for many in my constituency and others nearby is broadband. The push of £5 billion into delivering full-fibre (aka ‘gigabit’) broadband is phenomenally helpful. Some parts of the country already have it but many parts of the rural North particularly – where in too many areas 4g signals are patchy, operator specific or non-existent, feel very cut off and isolated. Johnson got it in his leadership campaign and full-fibre will be transformative for these communities.
Throw in the extra £1.5 billion for FE college capital and you start to see a real pattern. Investment for productivity growth.
The biggest change that we’re all looking at though is in one line of the Chancellor’s statement. In which he said he wanted to revise the “Treasury Green Book”: these are the investment rules that have always favoured London.
Only by the revision of these rules will we see the growth and development we so desperately need in the North to deliver opportunity and therefore productivity. Rest assured, those of us in the Blue Wall will be keeping a close eye on what these revisions mean – the truth is that you can also ease pressure on London if you don’t have a permanent drain of talent to the metropolis, something that needs factoring in.
The focus on real infrastructure investment, connectivity and productivity in the first Budget, rather than just bumping up day-to-day spending, should be incredibly reassuring to Conservatives of all stripes. Anything that helps deliver the virtuous circle of jobs, economic growth, more and better public services is to be welcomed and the fact that levelling-up is about helping deliver opportunity, rather than just shoving public sector jobs North (as it would have been under Mr G Brown) is fantastic news for the North and, in the long term, for everyone.