> Is there a General Election on the horizon or something ? The Tories are getting all concerned about the North East…
Growing the economy in the North of England and closing the wealth divide with London and the south east was one of the major themes of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, spoke repeatedly about backing the North in his keynote speech at the conference.
The focus may seem surprising given that the party has few MPs in the North East.
Guy Opperman in Hexham, Northumberland, and James Wharton in Stockton South are the party’s only North East representatives in the Commons, although Tories believe they have a chance of taking Liberal Democrat-held Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, at the next election.
But William Hague, the former Foreign Secretary regarded as unofficial deputy leader of the party, pointed out to journalists that there were many more Conservative MPs in the North West and in Yorkshire.
Mr Osborne, who represents a constituency in Cheshire, even told the conference: “I am also the first Chancellor for almost forty years to represent a constituency in the north of England – and I can see the risk of our capital city’s dominance.
> Yorkshire and Cheshire are quite different from the North East. That’s exactly why they do elect Tories.
“It is not healthy for our country or our economy.”
He pledged: “Let us choose today to make reducing the gap between north and south, London and the rest, one of the central ambitions of the next Conservative Government.”
And he highlighted the Government’s plan to create a “Northern Powerhouse”, saying: “The answer is to build up the rest of our country. To create a Northern Powerhouse of the cities across the Pennines.”
The Chancellor’s plan is to turn the North into an economic powerhouse rivalling London by investing up to £15 billion on local transport links, picking a scientific speciality for universities to become world-leaders in, possibly building a high speed line across the Pennines, linking the North East and North West, and giving cities more autonomy and cash – if they agree to transform local government by introducing directly-elected mayors.
Mr Hague insisted the party was on course to win in the North.
He said: “At the last general election we made a major breakthrough in the North – if you take the North as being Yorkshire, the North East and North West. We went up at the last election from 19 MPs in the North to 42. That was a huge expansion, including in the North East of course, where we gained Stockton South.
> And… and… oh, just Stockton South, then ? Along with Hexham, that’s a really huge expansion in the North East.
“I hope we can add to that – there will be seats we will be targeting in the North including the North East.”
Major announcements at the conference included plans to freeze working-age benefits – including benefits received by working people on low salaries – for two years.
This means cutting benefits in real terms, because of the effects of inflation.
Conservative leader David Cameron, in his conference speech, announced plans to raise the income tax personal allowance to £12,500. This would take one million more workers out of income tax entirely and give a tax cut to 30 million more, Mr Cameron said.
An estimated 51,000 North East workers would pay no income tax at all because of the change. Many others would pay less tax.
> Isn’t this because wages are so poor to start with ?
Mr Cameron also announced plans to raise the threshold at which people pay the 40p income tax rate from £41,900 today to £50,000.
It means a tax cut for many people earning above-average salaries. Mr Cameron said the 40p tax was supposed to be for the rich, but it’s currently paid by some senior nurses, teachers and police officers.
But critics pointed out that the Conservatives had failed to explain how they would pay the £7 billion cost of cutting tax.
Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said: “Nobody will be fooled by pie in the sky promises of tax cuts in six years’ time when David Cameron cannot tell us where the money is coming from.
“Even the Tories admit this is an unfunded commitment of over £7 billion, so how will they pay for it? Will they raise VAT on families and pensioners again?”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 05 Oct 2014
A new investigation by Unite has found that since 2012 a scandalous £1.5 billion has left the NHS and gone into the pockets of just 15 private companies linked to 24 Tory MPs and Lords who voted for the Health and Social Care Act.
Many of these MPs and Lords have benefited from the combination of their links to private healthcare and the sell-off of the NHS.
Lord Blackwell, Baron Higgins of Worthing, Baroness Cumberledge, Baroness Wheatcroft, Baroness Bottomley, Lord Freeman, Lord Popat, Lord Patten, Lord Glendonbrook, Lord Hunt and Baroness James of Holland Park.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said:
“This is a national scandal and the Tories must be held to account. The government had no mandate to sell-off our NHS but they did just that. You have to ask yourself why?
“Since the vote to sell-off our NHS £12 billion pounds of our services are now in private hands. Key clinical services including cancer care, blood analysis and mental health have been sold off or are up for sale. It is time to scrap the Health and Social Care Act and save our NHS.
“David Cameron promised there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS, but he lied. How can we be in a situation where dozens of his MPs, voted for the sell off and had links to private healthcare companies, knowing this would open up new opportunities for the companies that pay them.
“It’s no wonder that calls to protect the NHS from TTIP, a EU-US trade deal that threatens to make the sell-off of the NHS permanent, are being ignored by the Tories.
“The next election will be make or break for our NHS. It is clear what Cameron’s preferred path is – an American style health system.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 04 Oct 2014
The region’s MP’s reacted angrily to David Cameron’s plans for a constitutional revolution after Scotland rejected independence – accusing him of a political fix.
Labour MPs warned the plan – “English votes for English laws” – would strengthen the influence of the Conservative heartlands over Westminster, while doing nothing for the North-East.
> Well ? Did anyone seriously expect anything different ?
And they demanded the overhaul instead focus on devolving power down from Westminster, in parallel with firm promises already made to Scotland on tax and spending.
The stance – echoed by Labour leader Ed Miliband – puts the region on a collision course with both Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg, who plan to rush through a solution to the so-called ‘West Lothian’ question.
Under the fast-track timetable, firm plans will be unveiled in January – from a committee headed by Richmond MP William Hague – delighting Tories who fear the rising UKIP threat.
In reality, change looks impossible before the May general election, but the “English votes for English laws” proposal is, nevertheless, a political nightmare for Labour.
Mr Cameron suggested Scottish MPs would lose voting rights over tax issues, potentially leaving a Miliband administration – with 41 Scots MPs currently – unable to pass a Budget.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) attacked a “crude attempt to cobble this together on the back of an envelope”- calling on the prime minister to put devolution first –
“In our region, we will find that our position gets relatively worse. It might be a good solution for people in Hertfordshire, but I don’t think it’s a good solution for people in Durham.”
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) –
“Cameron completely missed the point. He should not be using this as an opportunity to increase the Tory stranglehold over England.”
Kevan Jones (North Durham) –
“Cameron is pandering to his right wing and UKIP – this is not going to help the North-East at all.
Jenny Chapman (Darlington) –
“He should be talking to people in the North-East about what they want and what extra powers they want, rather than making a back-of-a-fag-packet declaration.”
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) –
“I’m astounded by the naivety of the prime minister in thinking that all he needs to do is change the way Westminster votes.”
Grahame Morris (Easington) –
“A Tory-dominated English Parliament, which continues to concentrate power and resources in the affluent South, will worsen existing regional inequities and frustrate the legitimate desire for greater autonomy for the North East.”
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) –
“In any settlement, there has to be something for the regions and I think that has to be more powers over economic development.”
But Liberal Democrat Ian Swales (Redcar) – while agreeing devolution must go “further and faster” – said it would be “absurd” not to restrict Scottish voting rights at Westminster.
He said: “We may end up with some form of English parliament, but should first make it work by MPs only being able to vote on issues that affect the country they represent.”
The MPs agreed any notion of a regional assembly was “off the agenda” – arguing instead for new, combined authorities to be strengthened with economic powers.
Some constitutional experts warned of chaos ahead, arguing Westminster could end up with “two Governments” – one for defence and foreign affairs, the other for the likes of education and health.
And the respected Institute for Government think-tank also argued the “debate on English devolution” must be part of the post-referendum settlement.
A Government source rejected suggestions that Mr Cameron was fast-tracking the ‘English votes’ issue, while devolution was left in the slow lane.
He said: “We believe we have done a lot devolving powers within England, through the likes of City Deals – and they have been welcomed by business and political leaders in the North.”
Source – Northern Echo, 20 Sept 2014
The full challenge facing George Osborne’s plan to create a “Northern Powerhouse” is today highlighted by a former global banker who points to years of transport failures in the region.
Jim O’Neill, former chairman of asset management at Goldman Sachs, has published a report from his City Growth Commission in which he describes how the UK economy is being held back as officials in Whitehall keep control of local transport and infrastructure decisions.
The call to hand the North a bigger say over its own future comes weeks after the Chancellor said he wants to rebalance the economy away from the South East, with a major new high speed rail network linking up the likes of Manchester and Leeds among the projects proposed.
But without handing city leaders a say over improving outdated infrastructure, the commission says, the Chancellor faces a tough task in matching that ambition with real change.
In his report Mr O’Neill warned that meeting Mr Osborne’s ambition would require “significant change” from Government.
The report, based on hearings in Newcastle and other cities, says Metropolitan areas like Tyne and Wear must be given a bigger say over their own future. The commission found that the UK loses billions of pounds every year as a result of poor, overly-centralised decision-making that fails to encourage greater links between cities.
Plans for a new high speed rail network must be improved so links from the North are prioritised, the commission said.
Talking of the need to strengthen Northern “metro” areas, Mr O’Neil said: “We recommend the Government considers making two bold decisions regarding its infrastructure policy. The first is to provide metros with a strong, powerful voice that can influence and guide decision making at a national level.
“For too long, our cities have not had a seat at the table, and this has been to the detriment of Northern metros in particular, as well as the economic growth of the UK economy as a whole.
“The second is to place connectivity between metros at the heart of any infrastructure investment, in particular via multiple transport links between cities and better broadband technology.
“Whilst the UK is starting to move in the right direction – with the creation of Infrastructure UK and the Chancellor’s recent proposal for a connected ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – there is still some way to go.”
Those transport concerns were last night backed by Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, vice-chair of the All Parliamentary Rail in the North group.
He said: “The difference in spending on transport between London and ourselves is about 520 to one, and even just changing the funding system now will not address the historic deficit we face. Time and time again we have lost out, and will continue to do so while the Government makes spending decisions based on congestion rather than on helping us grow.”
The lack of a Northern advocate in Government has again been highlighted after yesterday’s Government reshuffle.
Former regional minister Nick Brown warned: “The position of the English regions is weaker now than before the reshuffle. The surprise announcement of William Hague and the dilution of Greg Clark’s City Minister responsibilities leaves the English regions even less represented than they were before. This is a Home Counties reshuffle.”
The Government recently went some way to addressing the transport issues facing the region with its local growth fund announcement. With local contributions, the Government decision paved the way for £95m of infrastructure improvements. A “Provisional Allocation” of £78.7m was also announced for a number of further schemes due to start in 2016.
Ministers have also recently signed off on a new North East super council, the Combined Authority, which they say will be used to devolve new powers down to city regions.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 16 July 2014
Depending on who they were, Ministers in David Cameron’s Government were either celebrating promotions or mourning the end of their political career after being invited in to Downing Street to hear their fate in today’s re-shuffle.
With a ruling Coalition that has only four North East MPs – all on them on the backbenches – any re-shuffle is not likely to have an obvious immediate impact on the region.
Yet Mr Cameron’s various moves on the chessboard, widely seen as part of his strategy to try and win the next election, will have been followed by many in the region.
It is a fair bet that many a champagne cork will have been popping in school staffrooms at the re-shuffle’s largest casualty, the Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Being unpopular with teachers is almost a job requirement for Education Secretary, but Mr Gove seems to gone above and beyond that brief, not least with teachers in part of the North East after he attacked schools in County Durham with the slightly odd comment that “when you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism.”
The re-shuffle effectively saw Mr Gove sacked from his Education job. Instead he will become Chief Whip, responsible for imposing discipline on Conservative MPs, and will represent the Government on television, according to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman – which led to him being dubbed “Minister for TV” at Westminster.
Although Mr Gove is popular with sections of his party, and hailed as a hero by supporters of his school reforms, his departure from the education brief is likely to please some North East teachers and heads.
The new Education Secretary is Nicky Morgan, who became in MP in 2010 and was previously a Treasury Minister. After making it into the Commons in 2010 at the second attempt, the former corporate lawyer was quickly earmarked by Mr Cameron as a potential star and was made a ministerial aide within months, a whip in 2012 and a junior Treasury minister last October.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 15 July 2015