The CBI annual dinner last week was a great occasion to reflect on the last 12 months and to set the direction for the months to come and I was delighted to see so many businesses and civic leaders join me for the occasion.
Amid the interminable Brexit debate and the doom and gloom of politics I try to be positive and to be frank there is a lot to be positive about. From the many conversations I’ve had with businesses I think that, right now, we are in an age of invention.
Now I won’t re-hash the twists and turns of the past three years, all the economic evidence is well-known.
But I think we should be asking ourselves what kind of country we want to be and what part we want to play in the world.
It’s a conversation we’re having internally as it impacts our strategic direction but externally, and as we look to the future – and past Brexit if we can, what do we need to do to make sure our region continues as a hub of imagination, innovation, ingenuity?
I think there are three big things.
First – something that is often talked about, but rarely acted on: devolution. We know that decisions are best taken by those closest to the effect of those decisions.
Yet the UK remains one of the most power-centralised countries in Europe. Decisions that, in other countries, are taken at a local level have in this country become the routine preserve of Westminster. And frankly, with government distracted by Brexit, we can now see the disadvantages of over-centralisation.
Yet despite this indisputable truth, progress towards devolution remains frustratingly slow, we are only too familiar with this in our region and risk being left behind by further delay.
Second – is connectivity. You don’t need me to tell you just how vital our transport networks are. Roads and railways are the arteries of business – connecting people, places and products.
But across Yorkshire and the Humber, business is held back by creaking Victorian-era infrastructure. And frustratingly, we know what’s needed.
Not tinkering around the edges – but big, ambitious national projects – starting with HS2. Now much has been said about the ongoing HS2 review. And it’s easy to say, ‘why not spend this money elsewhere’. But the economic case is absolutely rock solid as campaigns like Connecting Britain have highlighted, we need to build HS2 in its entirety or risk further decades of declining productivity and stagnant growth.
The final lever for growth in Yorkshire and the Humber is embracing the zero-carbon opportunity. The UK is now on track to be the first carbon-neutral country on earth.
But this transition won’t happen without business – whether it’s developing clean technologies, investing in research delivering electric vehicles – and the infrastructure to support them.
It’s been incredibly striking to me that when I visit CBI member companies and talk about carbon-cutting, or climate change I don’t find hesitation or reluctance.
I find excitement and ideas.
And nowhere more so than here. We have already seen Orsted and Siemens Gamesa make huge investments in offshore wind across and coupled with the carbon capture pilot from Drax and the ambitious Energy Estuary 2.0 bid led by the University of Hull, which is supported by over 40 businesses, and would see our region host and run “demonstrator projects” to develop the new technologies needed to decarbonise we are, in many ways, already leading the way.
“We can’t predict the future, but we can invent it.” Now is the time to invent the right future for this country.
With the right choices – we can and I believe will, lead the world in this most exciting of transitions.