The Treasury Select Committee – of which Catherine is a member – launched an inquiry into regional imbalances in the UK economy on 14th June. This article about the inquiry was first published in The Journal and Chronicle.
Since first being elected as the MP for Newcastle North back in 2010, I’ve focused on getting a better deal for our region – the tools, powers and funding to enable us to fulfil our enormous economic potential – because the desire to make young people from Newcastle and across the wider North East feel they don’t need to go elsewhere to get on in life is largely what drove me to come into politics.
So it’s hugely welcome that The Journal and Chronicle this week joined forces with newspapers and websites across the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber to launch the Power Up the North campaign. Demanding with one, united voice that the ‘shackles are taken off the North’, this initiative rightly calls on politicians from all the main parties to spell out what they intend to do, and how they will work with others, to narrow the long-lamented North-South divide.
But just how big is this gap, and what are the disparities still holding our country back? What economic divides exist, not just between different regions but also within them, between towns and cities, or between urban and rural areas? We often hear the UK has one of the most geographically unbalanced economies in the whole of Europe, but why and what does this actually mean?
In an attempt to answer some of these questions, the cross-party Treasury Committee I sit on in Parliament has just launched an inquiry into the regional economic imbalances facing our country. And, alongside the Power Up The North campaign, our investigations couldn’t be more timely given the next Prime Minister must prioritise tackling this issue whatever Brexit outcome we finally reach.
During my time on the Treasury Committee – alongside ten other MPs from constituencies across the UK – the economic differences that exist between the areas we represent have become ever clearer. But what isn’t evident is whether we even have the information we need to properly measure and then do something about these structural challenges facing our economy.
Statistics are often ranked by constituencies, local authorities or regions, and MPs regularly scour newly-published data to see how their area is performing, because it’s our job to do what we can to improve the lives – and life chances – of the people we represent. Whether it’s health, education or infrastructure, people are clearly affected by the huge disparities which exist within the UK, throughout their lives.
Locally, this sees baby boys from Walker in Newcastle having an average life expectancy of just over 71. Travel a relatively short distance across the city to the northern parts of Gosforth, and that jumps to 83. Nationally, the chasm is no different, with Office for National Statistics data indicating that in 2012 to 2014, life expectancy for newborn boys in Kensington and Chelsea was eight and a half years more than in Blackpool. For baby girls, the figure in Chiltern in Buckinghamshire was seven years higher than that in Middlesbrough.
At the same time, a 2016 Social Market Research Foundation study showed that the area a child comes from was a more powerful predictive factor of educational outcomes for those born in 2000, compared to 1970. For children sitting exams at age 16, London persistently out-performs much of the North and the Midlands.
Meanwhile, we’re all too aware of the IPPR North figures highlighting that planned transport investment per person in London will be a staggering 2.6 times more than that due to be made across the North – despite the clear and obvious benefits significant infrastructure improvements would have for our regional economy.
So what does this mean for the Treasury Committee? As the Government Department responsible for increasing employment and productivity, ensuring strong growth and competitiveness across all regions of the UK, it was pretty disconcerting when the Chancellor recently told us the Treasury does not have the data required to measure whether regional economies are growing or shrinking – or perhaps in recession whilst the country as a whole is not. In which case, how can we possibly be sure that some parts of the country aren’t being left behind?
Our committee’s new inquiry will therefore examine the regional imbalances that currently exist in the UK. We’ll look at what regional data is available, what more is required and how all of this could be used much more effectively to inform policymakers so that the UK’s economic playing field is levelled once and for all. We have a real opportunity with this inquiry, and campaign, to create the springboard to real, lasting, meaningful change for our region. I, for one, am going to grasp it.