Not so long ago many in the North East felt they were forgotten in all the talk of the Northern Powerhouse. Now it’s clear that’s no longer the case.
The Chancellor outlined plans for a new ‘Treasury North’ campus to be established in Darlington (a mere twenty minute drive from Rishi Sunak’s own constituency), along with an Infrastructure Bank headquartered in Leeds. There was relatively little mention of the North West.
At this stage it’s only fair to point out that the architect of the Northern Powerhouse, former Chancellor and Tatton MP George Osborne, was also very partial to the region he represented. He first set out his vision in the centre of Manchester, the city that got the first (and still the most comprehensive) devolution deal, which effectively gave Andy Burnham his job.
At times politicians in Hull and Newcastle felt the need to remind the world that they’re part of the north too.
But now the Government’s commitment spans across the whole of the north - or at least to pockets across the whole of the north.
Questions are emerging about the ‘priority areas’ that will receive a share of a £4.8bn pot of money for ‘levelling up’.
The prospectus categorises areas into ‘priority’ groups. The Chancellor’s constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire appears in priority one. Within Greater Manchester, most areas including both Trafford and Stockport are in the top category, while staunchly-Labour Salford is priority two.
Labour’s Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis has already said he is ‘confused about the criteria’ after it emerged Sheffield and Barnsley are also in the second category.
The documents say a place's ranking ‘includes consideration of its need for economic recovery, regeneration and improved connectivity.’ Recent and committed levels of Government investment may also be considered.
The emerging row is reminiscent of that which overshadows a similar scheme - the Towns Fund, to which areas can bid for millions of pounds of funding to regenerate an area.
After concerns were raised by the Manchester Evening News, the Towns Fund became subject to a National Audit Office report. It found ministers hand-picked more than half of the one hundred towns, though it added that officials had concluded ‘the overall selection was acceptable.’
It's hard not to notice that 40 of the 45 places receiving the first round of money from the fund are represented by Conservative MPs. When challenged, the Chancellor said decisions had been made ‘based on an index of economic need’.
For those places receiving money there's no doubt it will be welcome. In the North West this time around the list includes Preston, Workington, Bolton, Cheadle, Carlisle, Leyland, Staveley and Rochdale.
The biggest share goes to Southport, which is set to receive £37.5m for a range of projects across the town centre and seafront.
The local Conservative MP, Damien Moore, says he expects the facelift will bring in further private investment. It is the result of a team effort, he says, with representatives from the local council, businesses and education sector all involved in the planning.
It’s claimed the Town Deal will ultimately help create over 1000 new jobs, along with more than 300 construction jobs and an extra 1 million visitors per year.
That same can be said of freeports - a Chancellor pet project, with Liverpool City Region set to be one of the first. Rishi Sunak has long been clear that he believes the tax-free zone can help create badly-needed jobs and industry.
Labour are divided as to whether or not freeports will work. But the Liverpool City Region zone extends as far as the Port of Salford, and has been cautiously welcomed by both metro mayors in the North West.
Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “I think it's an exciting proposal. There is a downside risk that needs to be watched though which is the only thing I would say in that freeports could displace jobs rather than create jobs.
"We've got to make sure they create jobs rather than take it from one place to another and have a destablising effect. That's just something to watch, but overall I think that this is good news."
I think it's an exciting proposal... overall I think this is good news.
This kind of growth is the Conservative vision for improving living standards in the North - creating jobs to boost incomes and create a more regionally balanced economy.
But the rows over funding pots create a suspicion that the main strategy here is political - at a time when the pandemic has exposed vast inequalities that need a joined up answer.
Transport for the North, by definition a 'strategic' body, is seeing its budget cut. And the purse-strings don't stretch to cover extra money for councils - nor the social care, housing and homelessness responsibilities they hold.
The budget is proof that the Government is willing to spend money in the regions. But it is Ministers in Westminster who will decide how and where it gets spent.