At a Conservative Party conference fringe event, Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry harked back to his Liverpudlian roots, evoked the memory of Michael Heseltine’s work in the region, refuted think tank IPPR transport figures and said the proposed new housing assessment method would be “linked to the aspirations of your area”.
Speaking at an event hosted by Lexington Communications yesterday, Berry, who has been in post since the General Election in May, described himself as “the voice of the North in Government, not the voice of Government in the North”.
He reminded the audience of his Northern background, growing up in Liverpool and becoming MP for Rossendale and Darwen, in Lancashire, in 2010.
He used the restoration of Liverpool’s Albert Dock in the 1980s as a symbol of regeneration in the North, and pointed to Tory peer and regionalist Lord Michael Heseltine as “my inspiration for this Northern Powerhouse project, who in the ’80s was prepared to put party politics aside, and take up arms with political adversaries to turn the whole area, and the whole region around”.
While he suggested the Northern Powerhouse concept was alive and well in central Government, he noted: “I want the North to succeed, but not by dragging down the South. As we leave the EU, the South needs the North to be strong, as brothers in arms, to take on the global economy.”
Questions put by guests at the event to the minister centred on the mixed messages from Government on transport investment, and his views on the proposed new housing assessment methodology which looks set to reduce housebuilding targets across the North.
In July, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling attacked figures by think tank IPPR that suggested the North had received £59bn less investment than the capital over the past decade, describing them as “inaccurate”.
Berry backed up Grayling and said: “The left-wing IPPR think tank took about 40% of the transport investment information and tried to make it 100% of the story, so I agree absolutely that they are inaccurate. For example, it is completely unrealistic to compare transport investment in London, a city, to transport investment across a region, which is what they did. We all know that if you go to Cumbria, for example, there are far fewer people who need far fewer bits of public transport than you find in central London, so I completely refute those figures.
“But why I think that story got so much traction over the summer, is because those of us who work, live and have spent most of our lives in the North of England, we know our Northern transport links are not good and they need investment. This is [about] generations of underinvestment.
“The first thing we need to do is acknowledge the problem, which is what George Osborne did when he set up the Northern Powerhouse, we then need to work out how we’re going to deal with it, so we set up Transport for the North, and we’ve promised £13bn, which is more than any Government has spent on transport. I also welcome the announcement from the Chancellor that he’s committed £300m to futureproofing HS2 to connect to Northern Powerhouse Rail.”
When it came to the subject of creating a national methodology for calculating housing figures, currently out for consultation, Berry agreed that the assessment would result in a reduction in housing proposed in some parts of the North, but said this reflected “topographical features, such as the restrictions in places such as the Rossendale Valley, and also aspects such as existing house prices and how many undeveloped properties with planning permission are already in that area.”
He continued “I think after that consultation, the new housing figures will be a much more realistic number, and help areas which have previously struggled to get a Local Plan through.”
He defended the approach, explaining “I don’t think that will stand in the way of economic growth, because as your economy grows, and your property prices increase, as people get wealthier, that formula will grow with the size of your economy and aspirations of your area.
“It’s absolutely clear when you look at the disparity between house prices in the North and South, they have a much bigger supply problem in places like Guildford, than they do in Bacup and Rawtenstall in my own constituency.”
Also in the room was Gary Halman, managing partner of HOW Planning, who responded to Berry’s defence of the housing assessment method. “Berry seemed to suggest yesterday that he welcomed the DCLG draft figures as they would allow for more discretion at a local level, on whether councils could meet housing needs rather than having numbers ‘imposed upon them’. But the reverse is true: the new methodology is to be taken as the default position and any deviation from this has to be specially justified,” said Halman.
He added: “In some parts of the North West, like Stockport, the annual requirement goes up somewhat but the overall position across Greater Manchester is a 15% reduction. This doesn’t sit well with the economic growth ambitions of the sub region nor the huge affordability challenges which still exist in many parts.
“The GMSF will set the economic direction for the next 20 years, and the new Green Belt it establishes longer than that. So properly assessing development needs and ensuring they can be accommodated is vital to the successful implementation of the Plan.
“The apparent shift from North to South in terms of calculated housing need fuels the South East housing market and has the potential to stymie the central thesis behind the Northern Powerhouse.”