‘The Island’s Sinking, Let’s Take To The Sky…’: East of the M60’s verdict on the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement
Back in the early 1990s, Salfordian musician and radio presenting legend Mike Sweeney used to have a slot known as ‘Message in the Music’. This featured on his morning show on Piccadilly Gold, and listeners were encouraged to find an appropriate song for that morning’s news stories. For example, an ideal song for the split of GM Buses in 1993 could have been Breaking Us In Two by Joe Jackson.
In the years I have followed the political developments of our corner of Spaceship Earth, this is the first time I had found an appropriate song for an Autumn Statement. The answer of which – seen in the title – is the last song on Supertramp’s 1977 album entitled Even in the Quietest Moments. The subheading, is the very line which sums up the Autumn Statement to a tee:
“…the island’s sinking, let’s take to the sky…”
Was Mr. Hodgson 37 years before his time? Today, this line could refer to hydraulic fracturing and cuts in air passenger duty for under 16s. In other words, today’s Autumn Statement was a bleak one for environmentalists. It was also a bad one for persons in receipt of working age benefits (another freeze on Jobseekers’ Allowance, Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance).
A Greater Mancunian Powerhouse?
Greater Manchester was firmly in the focus of today’s Autumn Statement. £78million has been made available for new performance space on the site of the former Granada TV studios. Known as ‘The Factory’ (how dare they hijack that name), it aims to be Manchester’s premier theatre, being one of five in the city centre alongside the Opera House, Palace, the Royal Exchange and the Library Theatre’s performance space at HOME (set to open this coming March). It will be a ‘flexible arts space’ and a permanent home for the Manchester International Festival, with a proposed standing capacity of 5,000.
For the University of Manchester, £233million has been pledged for the Sir Henry Royce Institute. This will build on the university’s pioneering work in the development of graphene.
Plans to replace the universally derided Class 142 Pacer units was announced as part of a franchising condition for when the Northern and Transpennine Express franchises are up for renewal. It has been stated that some of the Pacers would be replaced by re-engined London Underground D78 rolling stock. In other words, despite the more robust build, previous trains replaced by those five years older.
Confirmed yesterday was the construction of the Glossop bypass. From the end of the M67 motorway, it will weave past the traffic rammed A57 trunk road between the motorway and the Gun Inn junction, finishing at Woolley Bridge.
In his statement it was announced that departmental cuts will continue till the next parliament. So far, Manchester City Council and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council has seen their spending power reduced by 40% since the 11 May 2010. The chancellor’s projections include UK plc having a £4billion surplus by the 2019-2020. This, he states, is met by continued departmental ‘savings’ (in other words, fewer subsidised bus routes and privatised Job Centre Plus offices).
In one source, the public sector could be the same size as it was in 1938. The North of England, by 2020 – if the Conservatives were returned to power in May 2015 – could see its local authorities shrink to a size of a present-day Parish Council. The gap between Northern and Southern England could be akin to the gap between North and South Korea. It is hoped that devolution may bridge the gap, but the amount of public spending required to bridge the North-South Divide, needs to be at post-World War II levels of reconstruction.
The run-up to Christmas saw the continuance of the meanest cut of all. That of working age benefits. With Vox Populi having had no pay rise – nor discernible rise in Social Security benefits – since the 11 May 2010, expect to see more ‘heat or eat’ scenarios. See foodbank usage reaching the million mark and more premature deaths from hypothermia.
A Great Day for Gas Guzzlers
If your favoured energy sources entail groping around Northern England’s shale gas deposits, or the gas-guzzling qualities of your long haul flight, this was the Autumn Statement for you. Aping his contemporaries in Canberra, the Autumn Statement saw tax breaks granted for fossil fuels.
Tax incentives were granted to stimulate the North Sea Gas and Oil sector. Field allowances were announced as an incentive for companies wishing to operate in technically demanding areas. Hydraulic fracturing prospectors have been given longer tax relief periods, extended from 6 to 10 years.
Under 16s were given relief from air passenger duty, though no incentives to keep rail fares down and greener transport were granted.
East of the M60 Comment: Precious Little To Speak Of
Apart from the plans to boost Greater Manchester’s creative industries, you could be forgiven for saying ‘meet the new budget, the same as the old budget’. Of the ‘old budget’, the corporate welfare state being fattened at the expense of our welfare state. Our Welfare State of publicly funded schools, efficient alternatives to the car, public libraries and the right to Social Security benefits.
The pernicious freeze on working age benefits and departmental ‘savings’ shows where present company has always leant towards. Over 97% of people oppose fracking in the North West of England, yet plans to poison the average Prestonian are being carried with egregiousness and hubris. Nobody likes to see their public services slashed to the point of irrelevance. Britain needs more, not less or no public libraries and educational institutions. The right to travel anywhere without a car should be as inalienable as the right to clean water. (By this I also mean cyclists and pedestrians as well as buses, trains, trams and ferries).
Any plans to replace the Pacer units are welcome, though I shall believe them when I see a couple thrown onto a bonfire on the spare land near Normanton railway station. I doubt as if the planned replacement – re-engined yet older London Underground D78 multiple units – would offer real improvements. They might have the doors, but first and foremost, Northern England needs brand new trains.
I like the plans for new performance space in Manchester. But, there is more to Northern England than Manchester. What about Liverpool, Sheffield, Bradford, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Carlisle? A Northern Powerhouse cannot be a Northern Powerhouse centred solely on Manchester and Leeds. Where’s the financial boost for Kingston-upon-Hull, a future City of Culture?
Apart from a few marquee projects, little to speak of. That is little to speak of besides the ConDems’ ideological destruction of the public sector. You can bribe us with all your fancy new performance spaces, but keep your hands off our libraries. Our markets, playing fields, parks, subsidised bus routes and any of the other things which makes our country all the more civilised.
How can we maintain a Northern Powerhouse without decent bus routes and public libraries? Highly impossible I’ll wager. Who’s going to move to Worsley if Barton Moss is being fracked to an inch of its life leaving a permanent scar from a short term operation?
S.V., 03 December 2014.