Back to the future for Big Bang of the North

By Michael Burton | 17 February 2021
  • Michael Burton

One dichotomy for Conservative MPs representing ‘red wall’ constituencies is how to ‘level up’ their areas without involving huge sums of public money and upsetting the chancellor struggling to manage the tide of red ink across the public finances.

The right of centre think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies reckons to have addressed this problem in a report this week which calls for a ‘Northern Big Bang’ and ‘a torrent’ of private sector investment.

In essence, it has resurrected the idea of the Urban Development Corporations (the UDCs) rolled out by the then environment secretary Michael Heseltine and others from 1981-93 to bypass local planning authorities and kick-start regeneration projects.

Indeed, the report praises the UDCs saying: ‘The most successful examples of regeneration in this country – such as the extraordinary growth of London’s Docklands into a global financial centre since the 1980s, or Nissan’s investment in manufacturing in Sunderland – were driven by private investment on a colossal scale.’ Ironically, many of the 1980s UDCs covered precisely the same areas as the ‘red wall’, across the North West, North East and Midlands.

The report, A Northern Big Bang, from the Centre for Policy Studies, rejects the idea that public sector investment is the answer to revitalising the ‘red wall’ areas. This is not surprising, as the co-author is Jake Berry, chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs. In fact, it states the opposite, that there has been plenty of public money poured into these areas with little to show in return.

The report adds: ‘The limits of what can be achieved through public funding alone were made abundantly clear during Tony Blair’s years in power.

‘Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money were spent in the regions, alongside increased public sector pay and a generous system of tax credits. Yet Blair’s own constituency was one of those that defected to the Conservatives in 2019.’

Conjuring up the Industrial Revolution as an example of how the private sector drives prosperity to the North – and putting to one side its dark, satanic mills, child labour and slum housing – the authors call for the same spirit in driving green technology backed up by a fast-tracked planning system.

There are too many delays to industrial developments, they complain, blaming ‘low-level council bodies which prioritise peace and quiet over the economic needs of the wider area’ (they must have written this before the row over the new Whitehaven coal mine, which was initially passed by Cumbria CC).

The solution therefore is to insist that any new development creating more than 100 jobs should be passed within two months, and any investor proposing a scheme with 250 jobs can be passed if necessary by a new planning body or a Government minister.

A new Growth Board for the North should be created with a majority private sector board make-up to ‘elevate it above the narrow interests and political squabbling which can adversely affect decision-making at a local level’.

The report’s recommendations also include updating pension scheme rules to encourage more investment into northern infrastructure, allowing the writing-off of all capital expenditure and creating a new Initial Investment Incentive to help spur a Green Industrial Revolution.

There is no disputing the UK has engrained and persistent regional economic inequalities or that the Government has to come up with answers or lose not just its ‘red wall’ Tory MPs but the next General Election as a result.

It is also unlikely that the chancellor will have much left in the Treasury cupboard to be repeating the public investment of the Blair years, which means the private sector will have to provide even more of the heavy lifting than before.

How much of its alleged reluctance to invest in the North is due to intransigent planning authorities and ‘low-level council bodies’ is, however, very much open to question.

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