9. What progress he has made on his policy to create a northern powerhouse for the UK economy. (905846)
In July I set out my plan to build a northern powerhouse to connect the great cities of the north with the counties that surround them—and, of course, north Wales—by investing in transport science, and by devolving powers from Westminster to elected city mayors. We now have plans for High Speed 3 and for major new science investment. Yesterday I signed an historic agreement with the civic leaders of Greater Manchester to create the first directly elected metro-wide mayor outside London, with powers over transport, economic development and policing. I hope that Manchester will be the first of many cities to take advantage of the greater devolution of powers. Today I have opened my door to discussions with any metropolitan authority that wants to adopt a new model of governance. All that is part of our ambition to reduce the decades-old gap between north and south, which is central to our long-term economic plan.
As a Cheshire Member of Parliament, I know that the north Wales economy is closely connected with the economy of the north-west of England. We have already committed ourselves to reopening the Halton curve, re-establishing a regular direct rail link between north Wales and Liverpool for the first time since the 1970s. That is something that my right hon. Friend asked me to do, and campaigned for. Moreover, High Speed 2 gives us the potential of a station at Crewe, which will greatly increase capacity for journeys to north Wales and reduce journey times. We are ready to listen to further ideas for ensuring that prosperity is experienced in north Wales as well.
For 13 years Labour neglected jobs and growth in the north, including Weaver Vale, thus creating an economy that was dangerously unbalanced. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only the Conservative party, with its long-term economic plan, that will deliver job security for the whole United Kingdom, not just the south?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A record number of people are now employed in the north of England, but the gap between north and south grew under those 13 years of Labour government. If the House wants one example of a project that was waiting to be completed but was entirely neglected by the Labour Government, it is the Mersey Gateway bridge, which this Government are now building and to which they are committed—and, thanks to my hon. Friend’s campaigning, there will be no tolls for local residents.
I welcome the Chancellor’s obvious commitment to the northern economy. Does he agree that a commitment to exports will be at the heart of its regeneration, and will he join me in praising Victrex, a company in my constituency, which exports 97% of what it produces? Is that not what will drive a northern renaissance?
My hon. Friend, who is a powerful champion of the businesses in his constituency which employ local people, has told me about Victrex and its exporting success. That success is being replicated by other manufacturers in the north of England which are increasing their exports. The energy revolution in the Fylde area and on the Blackpool coast is creating the potential for a national college to develop the engineering and other skills that will be required. My hon. Friend has made a strong bid for that college to be in his constituency, and I am listening very carefully to the case that he is making.
I welcomed what my right hon. Friend said when he was in Manchester yesterday. However, a northern powerhouse must not just be about our biggest cities. In Pendle we have landmark regeneration projects such as the £30 million redevelopment of Brierfield Mill, which is in need of my right hon. Friend’s support. Will he tell me what benefits the northern powerhouse will bring to my constituents, and how his investments in transport and regeneration will help them?
Crucial to the vision of the northern powerhouse is not just supporting the great cities of the north, but ensuring that they are connected with the towns and counties surrounding those cities. We are investing hugely to improve transport links in Lancashire. My hon. Friend, who is such a champion of his constituency, has raised with me the Brierfield Mill site, which is now called Northlight. We are taking a close look at what we can do to redevelop the area and bring more jobs to his constituency, and that is due to his campaigning efforts.
The idea of a northern powerhouse is welcome, as is the introduction of an elected mayor, which I am sure will provide real leadership. However, it is vital for smaller places such as Carlisle to benefit as well, which will mean ensuring that the next generation has the right skills to enable local businesses to succeed and prosper. How will the Chancellor ensure that that happens?
Thanks in part to the efforts of my hon. Friend and the support he has given to investment in Carlisle, we have seen a 34% fall in the unemployment claimant count in Carlisle in the last year alone. We are also devolving more responsibility for setting the skills agenda to local businesses, so we can have skills that are specific to the Carlisle area. I am always happy to talk to my hon. Friend and to meet people he would bring to see me, to see what more we can do to make sure that Carlisle is part of the strong economic revival of the north of England.
The Chancellor opened the door for other metropolitan areas to go down the route of the northern powerhouse. Has he given any consideration to what he regards to be an optimum size for those units? In the west midlands, would that be a Greater Birmingham and black country metropolitan area or an entire west midlands metropolitan area?
I do not think any one area is the same as any other area. There is a specific model for Greater Manchester, and of course the Greater Manchester councils had worked well together as a combined authority. Clearly Birmingham city council is much larger than Manchester city council alone, so I would like to have a conversation with the hon. Lady, and with Albert Bore and other civic leaders in Birmingham, about whether we can move to a mayoral model, perhaps just in the city. That is a discussion to be had with local people, however.
I must congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on his organisational brilliance by peppering us with all these planted questions on this subject, but I tell him, as the co-chair of the Yorkshire group of MPs, that we are a bit canny in Yorkshire; we are a bit worried about this northern powerhouse. We agree with it and support it, but it is a bit close to the general election. Where has he been for four and a half years, and where is the money coming from? We have not seen any resources for it.
We have already made investments over the last four years in things such as the northern hub and the electrification of the trans-Pennine railway, which of course will have helped the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I welcome his support for the northern powerhouse. This agreement with Greater Manchester was struck with Labour leaders of Manchester councils as well as the Conservative leader of Trafford and the Liberal Democrat leader of Stockport. I want to work across party divides with local Labour civic leaders and local Labour MPs to see what we can do for Huddersfield and other towns in the north of England so that they are connected to the northern powerhouse.
We will have developed and costed plans for HS3 from—[Interruption.] There was no proposal for HS3 from the Labour party for 13 years in government and then for four years in opposition. Labour Members are now complaining that I came up with a proposal four months ago. We already have detailed support for that proposal from David Higgins and we are going to have a costed plan for it. There was absolutely no attempt to connect the north of England from east to west under the last Labour Government. It is happening under this Conservative-led Government.
Is not the best way to have a northern economic powerhouse to have full fiscal autonomy for Scotland? After all, the Prime Minister did say that all options for devolution are there and all are possible. Does the Chancellor agree, or is he afraid of the competition from a more socially just Scottish treasury making better policies for the people of Scotland?
We will honour the commitments made during the referendum campaign by all the Unionist parties to devolve further fiscal powers to Scotland. We will honour the commitment we made, and I would ask the Scottish National party to honour the promise it made that this was a referendum which would settle the issue of Scottish independence at least for
“a generation…perhaps for a lifetime”—
I am quoting Alex Salmond. Perhaps the SNP should stop trying to reopen the question that was resolved, and work with us to make sure that Scotland has a great economic future.
The Chancellor talks about creating a northern powerhouse, but really is he not just struggling to play catch-up, because while he has been shifting funds from northern cities to wealthier parts of the country, the unemployment rate in the north-east is the highest in the country, wages for working people in the north have fallen by even more than the national average and across the north the number of people unemployed for a year or more is up 62% since the last election? Why will he not match Labour’s plan to devolve real power and £30 billion of funding not just to the north, but to all city and county regions?
Not in England. In regard to playing catch-up, I would say to the hon. Lady that we have heard from Labour’s civic leaders in Greater Manchester that they want a directly elected mayor. We have heard from the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer. What is the view of those on the Labour Front Bench on this proposal? Last week, the Labour leader was in Manchester saying that the Labour party would never sign up to such a deal, but four days later all his civic leaders did so. What is the policy of the Labour party?