Timothy Kirkhope: Pulling together for a brighter future

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LIKE me, Chancellor George Osborne represents the North in a nationally-elected Parliament.

His recent announcements about a new partnership to give an economic boost to our region are very welcome. A combination of local authorities talking with each other for a common positive purpose, and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) at last getting some real powers and control over cash from Government and the EU, is a good thing.

However, our region is already doing pretty well primarily through the hard work and enterprise of the private sector.

What the Chancellor is now suggesting is how we can enervate the public sector and local government to assist growth and employment and improve our transport links.

Of course, we’ve been here before. As one of those who was involved in establishing development corporations when I was a Westminster MP in a former life, I know that targeted Government initiatives can work if they give more opportunities to free enterprise.

We succeeded with those plans and the evidence is still there today. Later, regional development agencies like Yorkshire Forward were a useful tool for delivering resources, but ultimately they became too top heavy and autocratic.

At least those agencies recognised and appreciated the value of European funds for regions like Yorkshire and involved MEPs in the strategy for delivery. Surely, with so much European money at stake, some MEPs should be involved? Not only do we know our way around the regions that we serve, but we also know our way around the European Parliament and, importantly, the Commission – where the cheques are signed.

So where are we in the democratic oversight for these new plans? We’re apparently not in the new LEP structures. They are to have various “stakeholders” from the voluntary and community sectors on their boards (though none of the Yorkshire LEPs have these currently) advising them on the social needs and priorities represented by those appointed. No doubt that’s useful but it is somewhat arbitrary and prone to produce factionalism.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to regenerate the North, partly driven from Europe. The European Structural Funds which are now to be distributed by the LEPS under the “European Funding Network” continue to offer significant opportunities for assisting employment and development.

Among the new ideas were the John Prescott Northern Way (Northern Gateways) highlighting the East/West corridor and the need for a co-ordinated approach. John was derided in some circles, but I think he deserves some credit. We have had the “Core Cities” proposals which have brought together the leading Northern authorities with mixed results so far.

We have now had the Chancellor’s new proposals for city alliances. The idea of ‘big city mayors’ has also been revived, but I’m not sure if there is an appetite here for that. Not all would be like Boris Johnson.

A new report from the Policy Exchange think tank talks of a regional “technology powerhouse” from the East to the West – some sort of Northern “Silicon Valley”. And Lord Heseltine’s recent “No stone unturned” report called for co-operation between our large cities.

In the 1960s and 1970s the infrastructure and road building programmes in the North East and in this region, for example, did some good, but often these schemes ended up in conflict between different interests and locations.

This recovery period is a good time to think calmly about what could be of some real benefit to our citizens and who should be involved in “pulling the strings”.

If we all work together, we can add something, but we must not strangle ourselves and our private enterprises – especially small and medium-sized businesses – in red tape.

I hear daily frustrations from regional and local organisations with viable plans to promote the region or enhance employment opportunities which are then dismissed by some petty official with no access to or interest in the greater strategic benefit that may be offered.

It would be great to think that this time we can all go forward in “ peace and harmony” and all the various participants, especially our local authorities and LEPs, can set aside political or personal ambition to get lasting results for our region.

Please count me in.

• Timothy Kirkhope is a Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.