Michael Hayman: A whole new ball game if the North is truly united

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OUR great Northern cities have a chance to play in the economic equivalent of the Premier League.

And that is because the devolution net is wide open. It presents a fiercely urgent opportunity for the North to score, and score big.

From Cabinet to companies, I believe that there has never been a more evident appetite to create alongside London a top flight team of cities to deliver a second urban engine to sell to the world.

And it’s within Yorkshire that the possibility of the much mooted “Northern powerhouse” needs to be gripped by its cities. The necessity arises from a simple but focusing reality that all aspiring urban hubs must face: size matters and the density of your population goes a long way to determining your global reach. In the North, you need to add up the five largest urban populations (Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester and Liverpool, a total of 2,572,977) to get anywhere close to the largest 100 global cities.

The North will work best when it works together, a point that has been consistently made by Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs chief economist and chair of the City Growth Commission. “Creating better transport links connecting major urban areas in the North could help to replicate the same kind of economic environment that powers growth in the capital and other powerful cities around the world,” he has written.

He could not be more right and the idea is gaining political traction. In his party conference speech, George Osborne outlined five ingredients to creating a connected Northern powerhouse – successful businesses, modern high-speed transport, big science investments, top universities and strong leadership.

The second of those, namely transport, is the one that has received considerably the most attention. A few months ago the idea of HS3 caught the imagination of policy-makers and pundits alike. A rapid transport network creating a corridor of opportunity from West to East. As one leading Liverpool official told me, it takes just under two hours by train to get to London. It also takes just under two hours to get to Leeds. Enough said.

But it’s a lot more than train tracks and the big plumbing of PFI projects that the North needs right now. Firstly, the infrastructure proposed will not be ready for decades, so it is to successful businesses that we need to look to see the earliest signs of the potential of the North working together. That means the focus of a new generation of entrepreneurial, wealth-creating businesses, forged by local talent and fuelled by international investors.

The industrial heritage that everyone assumed was the death knell of our cities might actually be their saviour: the ability to make things, and to build companies at the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing and technology.

Already across Yorkshire, there is a growing map of excellence in innovation and hi-tech. Take my home city of Sheffield where the Advanced Manufacturing Park unites the University of Sheffield with international corporations including Boeing and Rolls Royce, alongside high growth entrepreneurs. World class, world- leading enterprise potential.

Indeed, the North’s network of leading universities means there is a ready and willing talent pipeline for these companies; a potential oasis of capability where much of the country is facing a skills desert holding back business growth.

Joining together these hubs and creating a new network of trade and commerce is the opportunity that the North can address. That requires a new optimism and ambition: to embrace the possibilities of the 21st century economy and not re-fight the old battles of post-industrial decline. That means showcasing the North as united, vibrant and investable. A home to wealth-creating entrepreneurs, a magnet for talent, a place for ideas.

That needs the North to play as a team with an ambitious message. It is what the Saatchi brothers once called “the brutal simplicity of thought”. What do we stand for, what is our sell?

In 2003, Michael Bloomberg, then newly-elected New York mayor, used his State of the City address to call for the city to take “direct, co-ordinated custody of our image”. In many ways this is the task immediately at hand today in the North.

A century ago, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester were superbrands: magnets for capital, talent and ideas; respected and replicated the world over. In a vastly changed global economy, we need an organised voice. That is not a start-up but a restart: a reinvented destination proposition for the North, bringing together its many assets into an ambitious and persuasive sell.

Never in my lifetime has there been such an expectation and hope that our cities can become game changers, a team with the economic dynamism, ambition and a message to take on the world. The North has possession.

But the point is this, as any football manager will tell you, you score absolutely no goals unless you give the ball a kick.

Michael Hayman MBE served as a Commissioner into The Future of Cities Enquiry and is a board member of Creative Sheffield. He is co-founder of campaigns company Seven Hills and a co-founder of Start Up Britain.