Time to put aside political games and back Northern Powerhouse - Lord Jim O’Neill

Lord Jim O’NeillLord Jim O’Neill
Lord Jim O’Neill
In 2015, I joined the Treasury, a year after then-Chancellor George Osborne gave his keynote speech calling for the creation of the Northern Powerhouse

Our aim was to improve the trend growth of the overall UK economy by boosting growth in the North of England, specifically through better connecting Northern towns and cities and reversing decades of underinvestment, in order to improve the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.

We began by backing large infrastructure projects, in transport, science and culture, and introducing devolved policies to the regions- including outside the North. We promoted the

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potential of the North around the world to investors. And we started to decentralise power away from Whitehall through the first of the devolution deals.

In 2017, Metro Mayors were elected in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and the Tees Valley, ( and the West Midlands and the West of England)as well as a deal put forward ,

for the North East, and for Sheffield City Region. Next year a Mayor will be elected for West Yorkshire – a huge step forward for the region. The success of those Mayors will be measured

over a number of years. But we have seen the power of those Mayors in recent days, standing up to Government over Covid 19.

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Unfortunately – just as we’d started to make headway – our progress was stalled by the arrival of a new government. Under Theresa May, the Northern Powerhouse project essentially slipped off the agenda.

What she and so many others have failed to appreciate, far from being a thorn in their side, the North has the potential to be such a vast economic engine with internationally competitive industries, that it can boost the whole country’s growth potential, in a way no other region outside of London , can.

If given the right investment, we can hope to capitalise on our assets – including hydrogen and carbon capture and storage - and add billions to the UK economy.

Since deindustrialisation and the decline of mining, many governments have focused on demand subsidisation policies, but not pursued more supply slide reforms with true enthusiasm or vigour, and as a result, the cycle of decline where productivity levels lag far behind the national average.

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As a result, the North’s potential has not, as yet, been unlocked. Despite this, I felt hopeful when this new government was elected, promising swathes of investment for Northern regions and an end to London-centric thinking.

Instead, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by politicians who seem very happy to use ‘levelling-up’ as a soundbite, and less ready to put their money where their mouth is. They need to spend more time actually addressing the problems at the root of the North-South divide.

We need to improve education attainment levels, giving Northern children the same opportunities as their peers in the South. We need to transform transport connectivity, including Northern Powerhouse Rail linking the towns and cities east to west. We need to give Metro Mayors and council leaders the tools to govern the areas they were elected by.

This Government is consumed by this pandemic, often giving the impression that it is an excuse for delaying devolution. They do so at their own risk. People across the country are

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recognising more than ever the effects of heavy-handed, centralised system. The test and trace system is overwhelmed. Nationals newspapers are told about further restrictions before local leaders.

Metro Mayors such as Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Dan Jarvis are rightfully worried that the revival of their city regions could fizzle out.

Measures such as the Chancellor’s winter recovery plan will go a long way in saving thousands and jobs and businesses. Any further significant lockdowns could kill the evidence of green shoots of recovery, such as those that have been seen in parts of Yorkshire and the North West, if we don’t get a plan which can stimulate the economy in both the short and long-term.

We can’t afford to get complacent. ‘Levelling-up’ may be a handy slogan for many politicians but regional inequality is a lived reality for millions of people, whose education attainment or

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access to jobs and infrastructure investment is simply not at a level you would expect for one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

I still believe that there is a way forward. A Covid recovery and rebalancing the economy are not mutually exclusive – they go hand in hand.

Thursday’s Great Northern Conference is a chance for business and civic leaders to meet to tackle these challenges. It’s time to put aside political game-playing and start working together across all parties and industries – it’s the only chance we have.

Lord Jim O’Neill of Gatley is Vice Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, former Treasury Minister and the architect of the Northern Powerhouse.

The Great Northern Conference takes place virtually on Thursday 22nd October.