Sir Keith Burnett: North already on road to a better life

How can the Northern Powerhouse become reality?
How can the Northern Powerhouse become reality?
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SO why is it grim up North?

Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England and self-confessed Northerner, has been explaining why. Us northerners are less productive.

But how did it get like this? Here in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution which sold steel and cloth to the world?

Unless you have been asleep for the last 20 years, you won’t be surprised to know that most of the investment and talent in the UK has moved south, and it is investment and talent that makes you more productive – able to make more things faster and better.

Now when I say ‘make’, I don’t just mean steel and aero-engines but everything you can get paid to sell, such as insurance, financial services, design and architecture. All the services you find whenever money and talent converge.

And you have probably noticed that in Europe it is grim down South. The concentration of people who produce more for less or who add value to others is now hitting home across the UK and Europe.

Dissatisfaction from the have-nots or have-less is driving populism in a democratic payback for years of slow decline. It only confirms the biblical saying about productivity concentration – “to he that hath shall be given, and him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”.

So what are we to do?

Well, one way of making a difference is through devolution and building a Northern Powerhouse, the brainchild of two Northerners by adoption and birth – George Osborne and Jim O’Neill. But devolving powers is fraught with difficulties. The first is that we are giving an enormous challenge to our regional communities.

The fact is that we should have started this a long time ago. Imagine if we had devolved regions when the Manchester Guardian was just that. When the great banks of Merseyside and Manchester had their head offices in the North. But now almost all of the centres of decision making and influence are in the city of London, and the core of the North – coal, steel, textile and manufacturing – has had its heart ripped out. It is only now it has hit home that we need a Northern Powerhouse once more.

But Osborne and O’Neill are brave. The bravest leaders are those who know the dangers and still go out to face them anyway. And they are right. They know it will take enormous effort and sacrifice to put the heart and manufacturing energy back in the North in the face of national commentators who mock their ideals and high-vis jackets.

Which brings us to the Industrial Strategy of the UK. It sounds right, but strategy is not enough. Strategy without industry is nowt.

Industry runs on productivity which attracts orders, and that generates cash and attracts back talent. The North had this in the first Industrial Revolution and now it needs another one, and we are determined that our strategy will be worth more than the paper it is written on. And we have reason to be optimistic.

There is talk around the world of a fourth Industrial Revolution and the North is well-placed to play its part. As Jim O’Neill, the former Treasury minister said, a key factor in this will be its universities – one area of national capability which is not concentrated solely in the South.

In fact the Northern eight research-led universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York combined have a research power greater than Oxford, Cambridge and London.

And we are already at work, working with our city regions to create an advanced manufacturing corridor from Sheffield to the sea at Lancaster.

We are not just working in labs, we are building facilities like the world’s first reconfigurable factory drawing on robotics and big data which sits at the heart of our Advanced Manufacturing Research campus at the University of Sheffield.

A place where engineers from the world’s great aerospace and automotive companies work with their supply chains to make dramatic changes in productivity.

A place where companies like Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover work with the world’s best engineering academics to make products which drive and fly.

We have a long way to go. But we are in the road to higher productivity and a better life in the North. Don’t knock it.

Sir Keith Burnett FRS is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, President of the UK Science Council and has advised the UK government on infrastructure investment.