Lord O'Neill claims Whitehall is merely 'playing' Northern Powerhouse

Whitehall and businesses should stop obsessing about Brexit and press ahead with what they can achieve to realise the North's true economic potential, according to senior economist, Lord Jim O'Neill.

Lord Jim O'Neill gave a keynote speech to politicians, business leaders and academics at a conference held by Global Policy North in Leeds today. Picture by Tony Johnson.

The former Conservative minister believes that the complicated nature of Britain’s exit from the European Union is used as an excuse for inaction on issues that, if tackled effectively, could go a long way to “mitigating” any potential Brexit fall-out.

He also accused the Government of “playing” Northern Powerhouse, rather than truly embracing the project.

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Lord O’Neill was in Leeds earlier today to deliver a keynote speech at a conference hosted by Global Policy North where ‘the challenge of Brexit for the North’ was discussed.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post afterwards, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, said: “Whatever those challenges are, people shouldn’t regard them as important in terms of sorting out the future of the North and the Northern Powerhouse.

“Our productivity weakness in the UK, particularly in parts of the North, is costing the country way more than even a hard Brexit.”

Efforts to raise the North’s productivity, education standards, skills profile and transport need not be sidelined by Brexit, he said.

“These things will make the country more resilient, more prosperous. I wish we would have done it 10 years ago and we wouldn’t have the Brexit thing happen.”

Lord O’Neill added: “Brexit is a massively absorbing issue with lots of staggeringly complex technicalities but... it is far too conveniently used as an excuse by too many Ministers not to focus on a lot of other issues.

“It’s an excuse in business. We have a lot of businesses that complain about this uncertainty as another reason why they don’t invest but investment spending in Britain has been really weak for the last decade.”

On what should happen next, Lord O’Neill said: “We need Whitehall to stop playing Northern Powerhouse and really focus on it.

“Secondly, we need a lot of civic leaders in the North to stop themselves being so emotional.

“If we were ever to end up with a Leeds City Mayor or a Yorkshire Mayor, does it really matter what political party it is? It just needs somebody to take the accountability and give some proper leadership.”