Jake Berry: “We absolutely should be refocusing the Northern Powerhouse”

Posted On: 
29th March 2019

Jake Berry believes Brexit offers the Conservative party the opportunity to refocus its efforts towards the Northern Powerhouse initiative. While forecasters warn about the impact a no deal outcome would have on the region, the minister argues the north will once more confound economists. He speaks to Sebastian Whale

Jake Berry (middle) at the AMRC training centre
Credit: 
MHCLG

On Monday 18 June 1984, approximately 8,000 pickets faced thousands of police officers outside the Orgreave coke works near Rotherham. What followed was the most violent confrontation during the year-long miners’ strike, in what became known as the Battle of Orgreave.

Where once the site symbolised the deep division between striking workers and Margaret Thatcher’s government, Jake Berry believes it now has new resonance. The old pit has been replaced by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, bringing together global brands such as McLaren, aerospace manufacturers and the civil nuclear industry.

“More people work there now in highly-paid secure jobs than worked in the Orgreave coking plant. That one example shows how the northern economy is changing. It’s moved away from those old industries and the politics of division to new industries and cooperation and collaboration. To me, that one site tells me what the Northern Powerhouse can and will achieve,” he says.

While some point the finger at Lady Thatcher for entrenching the north-south divide, Berry argues regional imbalances long predate the former prime minister. “We live in one of the most centralised countries in Europe. During the Second World War, we nationalised most of our industries and they were all centred and run out of Whitehall. The north-south divide hasn’t been created by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron or our current Prime Minister. The north-south divide is a century old.”

The Northern Powerhouse minister is relaxing with his team when we meet in one of parliament’s committee rooms. His northern credentials for the job are undoubted. He grew up in Liverpool and went to Sheffield University, where he studied law. He has been the Member of Parliament for Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire since 2010.

Berry’s father was a policeman and his mother’s family were coalmen. His parents later ended up running a small business, and his family were “naturally Conservative” as a result. His Tory values were entrenched by the Liverpool City Council in the 1980s and the Militant tendency.

While Berry could speak for hours about the benefits he feels George Osborne’s flagship policy has brought to the north, he wants the Northern Powerhouse to be given renewed impetus post-Brexit. “We are at a crossroads in politics,” he muses. The Conservatives should consider 2019 to be “year zero” of the party in government. “Leaving the European Union gives us a real opportunity to do things differently,” he adds.

With newly established funds to bolster the UK’s towns, high streets and coastal communities, Berry says the Government is committed to ensuring places outside the south east of England are not left behind. To meet the aspiration of being a “one nation” Conservative party means providing long-term sustainable growth to all parts of the country, he argues.

“As part of this year zero idea, we absolutely should be refocusing the Northern Powerhouse,” he declares. At its inception, George Osborne and Jim O’Neill, the former Treasury minister, focused on city region states “driving forward the north”, Berry says. “That’s had a staggering success. But we don’t tackle the north-south divide by creating another divide between urban and rural.

“We have to deliver on that promise to create a country that works for everyone, as the Prime Minister said literally on her first day in the job. That’s how I see this strategy coming forward about doing a pan-northern growth strategy that says as much to someone who lives in Carlisle as it says to someone who lives in Newcastle or Manchester.

“If we are a One Nation party, how do we create growth in places like Whitehaven and Accrington?”

In March this year, the Government unveiled a £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund to boost less well-off areas in England after Brexit. The investment was branded a ‘bribe’ by those who felt ministers were trying to buy the votes of Labour MPs to support Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. But Berry, who was appointed to his role in June 2017, insists the money was in the works long before the deal was struck and insists the Brexit debate has “fuelled the strength” of the Northern Powerhouse.

“It is related to Brexit because there is an acknowledgement across government and a reaffirmation and a recommitment to that Northern Powerhouse. But I’ve been working on that Stronger Towns Fund since about my first week in the job, before Theresa May’s deal even existed, before parliamentary majorities were discussed about having to get deals across the line. This is part of the Government’s mission to drive growth everywhere,” he says, pointing to the Grimsby town deal outlined in the industrial strategy, which was unveiled last year.

But what about claims the Stronger Towns Fund won’t compensate for years of cuts to local authority funding? Berry says local government funding is “going up”. “This isn’t about local authorities being able to deliver more services. This is about creating jobs growth, it’s about creating stability, it’s about growth in the number of businesses you have, this is about creating a growing economy,” he continues.

It is not just towns that Berry is keen to focus on. With efforts being made to revive the country’s struggling high streets (he recently launched a High Street Saturday campaign), ministers also announced fresh cash for the UK’s coastal communities. The new round of funding (£36m) has gone to 70 projects across the UK. Some £200m will have been invested into coastal communities by 2020, Berry says.

Could Brexit be a boon for the UK’s seaside attractions? “Well, we had one of the best summers ever last year. Now, is that to do with Brexit? Probably not, it’s probably to do with the fact it was the best weather we’ve had since the 1960s,” Berry quips. But he notes a rise in international tourism from places like China, and the growth of the “staycation” – a phenomenon that appeals to the father of a young family.

“The idea of sitting in Manchester airport trying to stop the kids running around or whatever and trying to get the buggy back into the hold and all this sort of thing, doesn’t appeal to me.”

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During his nearly nine years in parliament, Berry has served as a PPS to Grant Shapps and Greg Hands, when the former minister was in the Treasury. Berry voted for Remain at the referendum, having been “cognisant” of the predictions coming out of the Government at the time. “Many of which have proved not to be correct,” he adds.

More recently, Berry has spoken positively about Brexit and the opportunities on offer. “I suppose what’s persuaded me is how resilient Britain’s economy is. That’s why I believe we will grow and succeed outside the European Union.”

In 2016, while on the backbenches, Berry led calls for the Royal Yacht Britannia to be recommissioned and used as part of the UK’s international trade exploits. While not government policy, the frontbencher still believes a new vessel could “play a role in driving international trade”. “Things like that can provide new symbols of unity that we could potentially use to bring our country back together, something we could be proud of, something we could unite behind,” he adds.

According to forecasts, much of the north would be worse off under a no deal Brexit. “I just wonder if they are the same people who made the predictions before the referendum,” Berry ponders. Pointing to the “prime capabilities” of the north – clean energy, high tech manufacturing, engineers, the automotive industry and the arts – Berry believes there is huge potential and resilience in the local economy. “But it’s absolutely crucial that we get the right sort of deal going forward from Europe to make sure we can continue with that growth.”

Will the north confound the forecasters in a no deal Brexit? “I’m sure the absolute predictions will prove to be wrong because it is just so hard to predict in the future. I’m sure the north will confound those predictions because it did after the referendum. I don’t see that the facts have changed.”

As for the current impasse, Berry has a simple solution. “The only way we can get certainty is by voting for the Prime Minister’s deal.”  He argues claims a new person could take over and secure a “different answer from the EU” is “for the birds”.

“The Prime Minister has provided leadership. Frankly, lots of other people walked away. David Cameron walked away. Other people walked away from it. She showed real grit, determination and leadership. I know and believe that she is the right person to lead the country out of Europe.”

But wouldn’t Berry, who was a supporter of Boris Johnson’s initial bid for the top job, prefer the former foreign secretary to be in charge for the next phase of the negotiations? “Look, Boris, I’m sure will have a role to play, whatever comes next,” he replies, describing Johnson as “really talented”.

“I absolutely back the Prime Minister and I hope that we’ll get her deal through and all Conservative members of parliament – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith – all of them will vote for her deal because it’s the right thing to do, and we’ll also get behind her and support her for the next phase of negotiations.

“And who knows, maybe some of them will have a role to play when that next phase comes. There’s only one person who knows, and it’s not me.”