Fairer bus system and infrastructure investments can help region level up, Turner & Townsend roundtable is told

Business and political leader vowed to join forces to stamp out injustices related to housing, skills, transport and infrastructure which are stopping the North from achieving its economic potential.

The Yorkshire Post and the Leeds-based global consultancy Turner & Townsend staged a roundtable debate which featured some of the biggest names from business and politics.

The event, which was held at Aspire in Leeds and chaired by Greg Wright, The Yorkshire Post's deputy business editor, considered the practical steps necessary to make "levelling up" a reality.

Alexis Krachai, the interim co-chief executive of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, said the focus must be on how can we earn more power to be responsible for our own localities.

The guests at the Turner & Townsend and The Yorkshire Post roundtable at Aspire in Leeds.

He added: "We all know that power is over-centralised. Too often when engaging with central government it feels a bit like a parent having a conversation with a child. Too often local leaders are asking for something or asking for permission. A lot of this is because of local and national weaknesses in our leadership structures.”

"With high quality local leadership you have more ability to pull levers confidently. We must build a leadership model that you can take to the Treasury which will build confidence.”

"The Chambers of Commerce need to be hard-wired into the leadership of our cities. In Sheffield we are working hard to earn that responsibility and to show we can be trusted."

Mr Krachai also highlighted inequalities in healthcare.

The event was held at Aspire in Leeds

He added: "The life expectancy of somebody living on a single bus route can vary by 10 years. A healthier economy drives healthier communities."

Ralph Pickles, Vice Chair for the IOD in Yorkshire and the North East, said investment in “sunrise” industries could play a major role in delivering the Government’s levelling up agenda, but the North is still affected by decisions taken in the 1980s to focus on the City at the expense of Northern manufacturers.

Mr Pickles, who chairs and invests in early stage companies, highlighted the impact on the North’s economy from the decline of British industry in the decades following the Second World War.

He added: “Levelling down has taken many decades and we can expect levelling up to take some time.

Mike Briffett from Clarion Housing

“British manufacturing industry after the Second World War was badly managed and suffered under investment. By the 1980s much of the northern manufacturing base was uneconomic and the feeling at the time appeared to be that all we needed was income from the City. Jobs disappeared, primarily from the North.

“At the IOD we feel there is a need to encourage more research and development support and in the sunrise industries in the North, because too much of it has been focused on the South. We need policies to encourage lifetime training and education in the skills needed in the next 20 years to encourage investment in the  North.

“Transport infrastructure and connectivity also play an important role. Industry clusters drive growth in Silicon Valley and in Cambridge. The North is not sufficiently connected yet.

West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin said an integrated bus system had a pivotal role to play in "levelling up" because you have "got to get talent to opportunity".

Tom Riordan, CEO of Leeds City Council, addresses the roundtable

However, she said the current bus network in West Yorkshire was broken and this was having a harmful impact on the economy.

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority is currently in the process of investigating the potential of bringing bus services back under public control in a franchising model already due to be introduced in Greater Manchester from 2023.

Ms Brabin said her vision for West Yorkshire’s bus network was a “fairer system” with capped fares where customers "tap in and tap out".

Ms Brabin believes a 21st century rail system should also connect talent to more jobs, better opportunities and brighter futures.

She said action was also needed over climate change to reduce the threat of flooding.

"I really get how culture can help in levelling up,'' she added. "Channel 4 is the jewel in the crown for levelling up."

Alexis Krachai of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce

Mike Briffett, President of Leeds Chamber of Commerce, who is a chartered surveyor with Clarion Housing Group, said, levelling up must mean creating opportunity and a more resilient economy.

"Talent is based everywhere, but whether you succeed can depend on where you're born and who your role models are.

"Fundamentally, a lot of the fabric of the economy is worn out and it is critically important that we have better infrastructure. It is the building block that enables the economy to flourish.

"Development has a role to play in levelling up. We need to focus on the social value that development can create when done responsibly; the creation of jobs and opportunity, a better place to live and better health and wellbeing."

Amanda Beresford, the head of planning at the law firm Schofield Sweeney, who is the immediate past president of Leeds Chamber of Commerce, said: "We need to capitalise on the assets we have got. Planning is a vital part of the levelling up agenda. We need to integrate local neighbourhoods with the regional and national picture. Any levelling up plan must focus on assets across the whole of the region.

Ms Beresford said that having a level of certainty is good for business and the local authority has a really vital role to play, although spending cuts have badly affected planning departments.

She added: "Health and prosperity are linked together. The more prosperity is spread around the region, the better everyone's health will be."

Tom Riordan, the CEO of Leeds City Council, said: "Councils are under-recognised, they are big employers and landowners. It's critical to get public services right in order to help businesses attract investment.

"We are building 3,000 homes a year in the right places in the city. Councils can provide an element of certainty and in Leeds we have helped to deliver the (First Direct) arena and two major shopping centres over the last decade. You can make your own weather by providing high quality services."

Coun Andrew Waller, executive member for the economy and strategic planning at York City Council, said York is twinned with the towns of Dijon in France and Munster in Germany.

He added: "They have so much more freedom than we have.

"In Dijon they have developed their own tram system because they have been given the flexibility to do what the city needed when it came to public transport. There is no problem there with finding an integrated transport solution.

"We would love to have the power to do that in York. Our children would have more life chances in a country like Denmark, where there is less social inequality, than in the UK where power is centralised around London."

Ken Cooper, managing director of Venture Solutions at the British Business Bank, said it was important for the North to recognise its strengths, be aspirational and stress the role it can play in boosting GDP in its conversations with the Government.

He said: "A really key part of my job is promoting equity investment, which helps to create economic activity leading to good jobs, higher incomes and better health outcomes; as well as new products and technologies that can improve quality of life. That only works because of the great business talent we have in the region.

"Instead of focusing solely on what the North wants we should also be talking about what the North can offer to the UK economy, levelling up is about making a sound investment in the future of the UK, one that will pay dividends.”

"Increased investment can generate wealth that will improve health outcomes and the quality of life."

Mick Grace, a director of Turner & Townsend, stressed that it was in Yorkshire people's DNA to tackle inequality and injustice.

"Your place of birth shouldn't dictate the length or quality of your life."

He said 'levelling up' was fundamentally about rebalancing long standing social and environmental divisions.

"We have something unique in Yorkshire, but we want a level playing to ensure our voice is heard equally alongside others. Yorkshire is ready for investment and united on levelling up so let’s make change happen today."

“There was a huge amount of energy for this discussion and being together in person was a fantastic reminder of the passion that people have for this region and its communities. As a global business with its headquarters in Yorkshire, this event was great way to mark our 75th year.”

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West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin
Ralph Pickles of the Institute of Directors
The roundtable was chaired by Greg Wright, The Yorkshire Post's deputy business editor