One of Britain’s top business leaders has said a devolution settlement encompassing the whole of Yorkshire would allow the region to punch its weight and compete on an international scale.
Ms Fairbairn made her remarks to The Yorkshire Post before addressing the CBI Yorkshire and Humber Annual dinner, where she told an audience at the University of Leeds that there needed to be a “willingness and openness from Government” and accused ministers of “devolving powers to the regions with one hand and holding them back with the other”.
When asked what One Yorkshire would offer over separate deals for the likes of Leeds and Sheffield, Ms Fairbairn said: “If you look how well Yorkshire is doing with the tech investment, with the employment growth, there is a real sense of opportunity. But I think we need to recognise that, if we look at global competition, scale really matters.
“We as businesses don’t really care too much about the political model, we do not care about the politics, but I think we care about prosperity and having sufficient economic scale for different regions for the UK to really punch their weight and succeed.”
When asked what message she had to Mr Berry and the Department for Communities and Local Government overseeing the devolution process, she said: “Our message would be that businesses in this part of the UK and indeed across the Northern Powerhouse, want their to be leadership at scale.
“That enables decisions to be taken which in turn enable greater prosperity.
“The benefits of there being that kind of leadership, in big enough units, which correspond more to the economic map of the UK rather than the political map, would be good for jobs, good for growth, unlock investment and build confidence at exactly the time when we have got some of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit coming to a head.”
In her speech to delegates Ms Fairbairn said: “I think it’s fair to say there is concern in the business community that much of the region has fallen behind the pace. In particular, that the lack of a deal for parts of Yorkshire risks creating gaps in the Northern Powerhouse.
“We know that what matters for firms has not changed – business wants devolution to succeed.
“There has been progress. In the last five years, we have come a long way. But to go further, the Government has to realise that it can’t devolve power to the regions with one hand and hold them back with the other.
“What we need is a willingness and openness in government to finish what has been started – and involve firms in the process.”
Her remarks come after a difficult week for the devolution process in the region following an ill-tempered Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons on the subject which saw Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry repeatedly clash with MPs attempting to make the case for a Yorkshire-wide deal.
During the debate Mr Berry reiterated his opposition to any deal covering the whole region despite its being backed by as many as 17 of the region’s 20 councils.
Ms Fairbairn, who became CBI chief in 2015 and is a former non-executive director of Lloyds Banking Group, also had high praise for Yorkshire’s economy, particularly its tech sector, which it said had the opportunity to become the next Silicon Valley.
“Yorkshire has always been full of entrepreneurship and innovation” she said.
“And that spirit still burns. Yorkshire companies have spent 16 per cent more on R&D than last year. It’s only right that we celebrate that success – but also how more can be made of it.
“There has been talk of making Yorkshire a new Silicon Valley. My response is – now is the time to go for it. At the CBI, we have stood by your side through this start-up phase – and we will be by your side as you grow.
“The opportunity lies in making even more of Yorkshire’s twin engines of world-class innovation and higher education.”
She added: “We need Yorkshire’s grit and determination now more than ever. Business activity in Yorkshire is growing at its fastest rate in two years. Manufacturing output is at a three-year high. And the economy is worth an astonishing £110bn per year - that’s around twice the size of Wales and larger than 11 EU countries. So today I want to ask how we can maximise the tremendous power of Yorkshire business to improve the lives of everyone across the UK.”
A full exclusive interview with Ms Fairburn will appear in Saturday’s edition of The Yorkshire Post.