Tom Riordan: Talking money with a strong southern accent

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PEOPLE are talking Leeds up again – and rightly so. The First Direct Arena and the Trinity shopping centre have both got off to flying starts, welcoming 13 million visitors and winning several awards.

Business investment and jobs are being attracted to the city, not least by the talent pool of 100,000 students from our excellent universities and colleges. We’ve doubled the number of apprentices and are trying hard to open up access to jobs for people from all parts of the city.

In a couple of weeks we host the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year and, next July, the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, the world’s largest annual sporting event. There is further development to come at Victoria Gate, Kirkstall Forge, the South Bank, and many more, representing a pipeline of tens of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of investment.

This good news is not just confined to Leeds: Bradford’s innovative work linking school leavers with employers like Borg Warner and Yorkshire Water and the start back on site by Westfield; the success of the Hepworth Gallery and companies like Haribo in Wakefield; the relocation of the high-end insurer Hiscox to York; the 3M Buckley innovation centre at Huddersfield University and the continuing success of Dean Clough as an arts and business centre in Halifax, to name but a few.

We’re putting old rivalries to one side and seeing the value of hunting as an economic pack with our neighbours through the Local Enterprise Partnership.

This success is due to civic and business leaders working more closely together to deliver growth and jobs. Neither can do it alone. The Government is helping to drive this collaboration through the “city deals” that are an important first step in giving cities greater freedom from Whitehall to shape our own destiny.

Council leaders are boldly seeking £1bn to invest in improved transport and create jobs through a new combined authority vehicle. We’re reaching across the Pennines in an unprecedented partnership that will lead to better quality rail services.

So what’s the problem? Well, all the evidence shows that the North-South divide is getting bigger, a fact reflected in the Big Debate that has been taking place all this week in the Yorkshire Post.

Our recovery won’t be sustained if funding for infrastructure and public services continues to favour the South.

London is unique as a hugely successful world city that can attract investment in its sleep. Our proximity to it is a big advantage in a global economy and shrinking that distance through HS2 makes sense. But the UK needs more than one cylinder on its economic engine.

I met some Chinese investors recently who were astonished that the Whitehall event they attended the day before included no local authorities. Too many of the big decisions are still being made at a national level and in Brussels. Take one issue that is vital to business productivity and the future of our towns and cities: skills and training.

Lord Heseltine rightly called for the billions currently allocated nationally to be devolved to local areas, but this has not happened – despite evidence that local businesses and councils can run such jobs and training programmes for young people more effectively than national providers.

Local approaches are also more efficient: in the last three years the Whitehall pay bill rose by six per cent while local government’s fell by 11 per cent.

Winning the race for the Tour de France taught us that if we are ambitious and ally the flair of the best in business with the unity and backing of civic leadership, we can beat the best in the world.

Our counterparts in Lille, Dortmund and Utrecht cannot believe how little power we have at a local level in the UK.

All political parties are currently writing their manifestos for 2015 and we must win the argument that the North needs full control over skills, transport and economic development.

The Yorkshire Post debate has shown the breadth of concern about the North-South divide and we now need collectively to get behind this compelling argument that Whitehall and Brussels have got to let go.

• Tom Riordan is the chief executive of Leeds City Council.