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Build back better? A lot hinges on next month’s budget, council leader says

A leader in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has called for bold infrastructure spending in next month’s national budget to make ‘build back better’ a reality.

Councillor Sean Fielding, portfolio lead for employment, skills and digital, said a lot is hinging on next month’s budget which is due to be delivered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on March 3.

It follows the news that the UK economy suffered a record annual GDP slump of 9.9% in 2020, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Mr Fielding said: “A lot of the noises out of the government are that we can’t afford to spend any more money and we need to rein in spending as a result of what we’ve had to pay out during the pandemic.

“To me, that is exactly the wrong attitude to have.

“If the country had had the same attitude after the Second World War, then we wouldn’t have built the welfare state and the NHS which are two things that absolutely needed to be built.

“We could do the same thing around transitioning to a green economy, and rebalancing the economy between the north and the south of England if we take the initiative now.”

The annual budget statement from the chancellor lays out plans for public spending and taxation, as well as how much the government will borrow.

It comes at a crucial moment as the government charts the course of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic at the same time as dealing with the reality of Brexit and a move towards net-zero carbon emissions.

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, there has been more than £250 billion of additional spending since last year’s budget to support public services, jobs, businesses and incomes through the pandemic.

Unemployment reached 5% in the three months to November 2020 – the highest level since 2016.

The Office for Budget Responsibility warned that unemployment could have risen above the levels seen in the 1980s, but the government’s furlough scheme has – so far – avoided this scenario.

Marcus Johns, a research fellow at IPPR North, said there are things that local government can do – and are doing – to use the recovery to transition to a low-carbon economy with higher wages, but they are relatively hamstrung by national government.

Mr Johns told MM: “Over the past ten years, local government bore a very heavy share of the burden of austerity.

“You’re heading into this stage where you need active local government to be stimulating an economic recovery and making those really significant transitions to a fairer, greener economy, but with multi-million pound holes in their budgets.

“And I think the government hasn’t wised up to that yet.”

Mr Fielding, who also leads Oldham Council, wants the government to be putting money behind investment in green technology and infrastructure that will allow the Greater Manchester region to meet its objective of becoming carbon neutral by 2038.

“We’ve already got a lot of things that price tags are attached to, but funding is yet to be identified.

“But the government could really help us bring those things forward.”

Investment in super-fast broadband, he said, is an area that will support people and businesses and enable more flexibility in the working from home arrangements that people have become accustomed to.

He highlighted public transport too.

Mr Fielding said: “The rail network needs significant investment because we’re still running on Victorian infrastructure.”

“We need some support for our re-regulation of the bus network in Greater Manchester because our public transport system is not integrated and set up in the way it is in London.”

“It’s going to take quite a lot of money in infrastructure spending if we really want to build back better in the way that the government is so fond of saying that it wants to.”

MM contacted HM Treasury for a comment but did not receive a response.

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