The North-South divide has “bedevilled our country for decades”, but nurturing and retaining a huge, talented workforce will allow Yorkshire and its neighbours to reap benefits on an unprecedented scale.
That’s the view of a new think tank chaired by former chancellor George Osborne and backed by ex Treasury secretary Lord James O’Neill.
Guests at the launch of the first Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) report in Leeds last night were told that Prime Minister Theresa May must and will listen to the collective voice of the North, but only if cities work together to harness their joint potential.
One of the most powerful speeches came from panellist and NPP board member Collette Roche, from the Manchester Airport Group, who emphasised the importance of training and retaining a skilled workforce in the region.
She said that only half of graduates in the North-West stay in the area, compared to 71 per cent in London.
“We cannot carry on having the talent we have produced walk out on the North,” she said.
Speaking after the event, Lord O’Neill agreed that reversing the brain-drain from the North was “crucial” to the success of the Powerhouse vision.
“It is ultimately one of the major goals we have got to satisfy, and it’s not easy,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“We have really got to create an atmosphere and perception that this is where it’s at. And that’s what’s going to change it - making people think [they are] more likely to be successful by being here than elsewhere.”
Quoting a recent poll, Lord O’Neill said 67 per cent of young people questioned believed that the Northern Powerhouse had the power to change their future.
“We really need to believe in that,” he said.
“It’s all about them really, and not my generation.”
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership was launched last September by George Osborne following his sacking by incoming Prime Minister Theresa May. Lord O’Neill also resigned from the Government in the same month,
The inaugural NPP report includes input from over 200 businesses, civic and academic leaders from across the North. It claims that realising the Northern Powerhouse vision could grow the region’s economy by £100bn and create 850,000 jobs.
Asked if and why the Prime Minister would listen to the partnership, considering her lack of loyalty to Mr Osborne in the past, the former chancellor said the Government has already “stepped in and stepped up” to support the vision, and both Mrs May and chancellor Phillip Hammond had spoken of the value of the Northern Powerhouse.
He said the NPP would be “officially entering into partnership with the Government itself” and dialogue with Ministers would be ongoing.
Lord O’Neill added the aim was to enable Northern cities to “create a set of circumstances where she (Theresa May) can’t avoid giving it attention”.
“When The Northern Powerhouse becomes such a powerful thing, she’s not going to have any choice but to focus on it,” he said.
“But the success of it does not just depend on how much the Government invests.
“It depends on the private sector and people who really want to have long-term involvement in the North taking the initiative themselves.
“In my view, the biggest role the Prime Minister can play is just empowering the environment where investors and private business people believe it’s a big thing for the UK.”
He acknowledged it wasn’t just about politicians and big business, and “broader collective societal buy-in to the idea” was vital.
Opening the event earlier, Mr Osborne said that the Northern Powerhouse is something which has to be “owned and developed by the North itself”.
He added there was a “critical mass of talent” in the North of England which can be maximised, and can “really punch its weight” in the national and international economy. “I think we can close the North-South gap that has bedevilled our country for decades,” he said. “If we get that right, the prize is a big one.”
Speakers at the headquarters of data firm AQL in Hunslet Road, Leeds, yesterday included key business voices from big name partners like Siemens and Mace.
Steve Gillingham, from global consultancy and construction firm Mace, told yesterday’s event that transport and infrastructure remained key to fulfilling the Northern Powerhouse vision.
He said that it had taken him three separate tickets, and journeys in the car, tram and train, to get to Leeds from Manchester.
“Our staff and the students who we want to employ in the future need that infrastructure,” he said.
“It is about the people who live and work across the North.”
He added quick and effective rollout of high-speed broadband was also vital.
“The industry and clients I work with consume enormous amounts of data.
“Investment in high speed connectivity is highly important,” he said.