Christine Hewson: Why devolution has to be put back on track

Christine Hewson of KPMG
Christine Hewson of KPMG
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For all the rhetoric of pathways and knife edges, there is one word that stood out to me during the latest round of will-they-won’t-they Brexit negotiations this past week: prolongation.

As the Brexit train pulled into yet another station, the attempts to push through a deal only served to bring to mind the prolongation Yorkshire and the wider North has endured since long before the EU referendum.

I’m talking, of course, about the slow progress of devolution and the Northern Powerhouse.

It’s perhaps telling of public mood in the North that – this publication aside – little column space was afforded to the Queen’s announcement in Parliament last week relating to a new Government White Paper on the Northern Powerhouse. With it came an additional promise from Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry that we could expect “100 per cent devolution” across the region in years to come.

Given the timing of the announcement ahead of a potential general election, business leaders across Yorkshire will be forgiven for taking the news with a pinch of salt. After all, we’ve heard similar promises on numerous occasions over the last decade. Bearing similarities to our exit from the EU, very few would anticipate a bullet train journey from here to a fully devolved North.

Whatever the outcome in the coming months in relation to both Brexit and our government, it’s critical that we continue to push the devolution agenda to ensure promises are acted upon.

The focus of any government must include investment in the North’s transport infrastructure. Connectivity to the south is clearly an issue but, pressingly, so too are the transport links that will ensure socio-economic gaps don’t widen between our cities and towns.

We talk so often about the North-South brain drain, but it’s also an internal issue. It shouldn’t be the case that workers find it necessary to relocate from Bradford to Leeds in order to avoid a lengthy commute and pursue a better standard of living.

Tackling these issues will be central to the ‘One Yorkshire’ agenda, should it ever come to be, but for the time being we must focus on each City Region’s specific issues. Sheffield, for example, must build on its vision to become an unrivalled advanced manufacturing powerhouse if it is to counter the low pay that characterises its otherwise high levels of employment.

Hull must be afforded the ability to invest in its port and energy capabilities to attract more international businesses to the area and accelerate economic growth. In doing so, we can champion the strengths of the region and align ourselves with a prosperous outlook for the North.

All this requires strategic investment from empowered local authorities. Business leaders want a wider regional strategy they can buy into and, from our experience of Brexit, it’s clear they require open dialogue with government to help tailor their own for the future.

Manchester’s industrial strategy, for example, has enabled it to set targets of being carbon neutral by 2038 – 12 years ahead of the rest of the UK. With the benefit of five years of devolution behind it, businesses in the city region are likely to be provided with a much clearer steer on how they factor into those targets and how they can be compliant in time.

As we look to 2020 hopeful that the forecast for Britain’s future is to become clearer, it’s time for Yorkshire and the North’s businesses to start putting the devolution agenda back on the rails after taking a backseat in recent times.

If not, we run the risk of further delays and, a potentially interminable wait for our final destination.

Christine Hewson is the Northern chair of KPMG