CrA TWELVE-point action plan to revive the Northern economy after decades of under-performance has been launched in Yorkshire by a coalition of business and civic leaders, academics and other senior figures.
The landmark report, which follows an 18-month inquiry by the Northern Economic Futures Commission, demands sweeping devolution of powers and funding to local authorities from Whitehall that goes far beyond anything proposed by the coalition Government.
The commission, set up by the IPPR North think-tank and chaired by former Manchester Airport chief Geoff Muirhead, calls for the establishment of a series of new institutions and bodies based outside the South East.
They would include a Transport for the North body overseeing rail and bus services, motorways and trunk roads; a Northern Investment and Trade Board to drive forward export and inward investment opportunities; and a Northern-focused arm of a £40bn British Investment Bank to fund new infrastructure.
A Northern Innovation Council would also be established, backed with £1bn of capital funds taken from the forthcoming sale of the 4G mobile phone spectrum.
This body would work with universities and businesses and set up centres of excellence across the North to deliver innovation and growth in key new sectors including offshore wind, advanced manufacturing and bio-health.
Mr Muirhead said the proposals were neither “far-fetched” nor “expensive” in the context of overall Government spending and, taken together, would make the North a far stronger and wealthier place inside a decade.
“The objective is to envisage a process which will lead to a big change; in which the North can actually become a master of its own destiny,” Mr Muirhead said.
“The time is now to act decisively. The economic future of the north of England is just far too important to be ignored.”
The commission concluded that large-scale devolution was central to the North’s future.
It says Northern cities should not be compared with London but with other regional cities across Europe of similar size, many of which are far less dependant on their respective central governments for funds and policy initiatives – and more successful economically as a result.
To this end, the report seizes upon the central pillar of Lord Heseltine’s recent call for a massive devolution of Whitehall money that is currently being spent on “growth” schemes such as housing, skills training and infrastructure.
It backs his idea of a “mega-fund” for the regions and says it could be even larger than the £49bn pot that he envisages, while concluding the money should be distributed to local areas by formula rather than through the competitive bidding process set out by the Tory peer.
The money would then be spent according to locally-agreed priorities and targeted where it is needed most. “I believe, and the commission believes, that the best-placed people to think about where to put the resources available are the people on the ground,” Mr Muirhead said.
Perhaps most controversially, the report follows Lord Heseltine in calling for directly-elected mayors, which were widely rejected in the majority of England’s largest cities in referendums earlier this year.
It calls for 11 “Metro Mayors” to be installed covering the major conurbations in the north of England, including the Leeds, Sheffield and Humber city regions.
These mayors would meet at least once a year to set priorities and agree common goals.
A northern “chair” would also be elected on a four-year term, and use their position to lobby at Westminster and on the international stage – so giving a voice to the north of England akin to that enjoyed by London via Boris Johnson, and Scotland through Alex Salmond.