By the time HS2 arrives in the North, most of the business leaders and politicians of today will be dead.
Well, maybe not dead. But by 2033, I certainly hope to be retired, as I expect many of my contemporaries will be. That’s not accounting for the inevitable delays that will happen along the way.
And that’s just the high-speed rail link from the North to London. We don’t even know for sure that the desperately needed East-West link across the North from Liverpool to Hull will ever happen, never mind when.
At the recent Conservative party conference, in an attempt to reassure us in the North that the Government hasn’t forgotten about us once again, Chancellor Phillip Hammond announced an extra £400m for transport spending in the North. Thanks for that Phil, but when you consider the Government’s own estimate’s that HS2 will cost £403m a mile, we’re not going to be getting very far with that.
This is a familiar story to those of us who work and live in the North. I could reel off endless examples, facts and figures of a Government that hasn’t given the North its fair share. For a little while things looked promising. While the idea of the Northern Powerhouse seemed to be high up on the Government’s agenda for a while, ultimately it was all talk.
Private businesses don’t want to just talk about it, they want to just get on with it. A lot has changed recently and with a new Government with new priorities and Brexit taking up their time, we have seen enthusiasm from Whitehall wane. It’s a well-known problem – the North wants, the North asks, the North needs – but rarely the North gets.
So what’s the answer? Devolution? Increased government spending? That will be part of the solution, yes. But it’s also up to us as to play our part. By us I mean the business people of the North. Entrepreneurs know how to make things happen. We take ideas and we run with them.
Back in the 1990s when I bought my first home computer and no one could tell me how to get on the internet, it gave me the idea to found Freeserve, an internet service provider with no subscription fee. It was a success and within six months we had a million subscribers.
I’m proud that I played my part in bringing the internet into the homes of millions of Britons. That all happened because me and my partners made it happen, we didn’t sit around waiting for someone else to do it for us.
The North of England has been a powerhouse once before. As the home of the Industrial Revolution, the innovations that came out of the North of England have shaped the world. The railways, manufacturing processes, electric lightbulbs, even the modern co-operative movement all came out of the North of England. We can do it again, but when we do, it’ll be the private sector that does it.
It’s not that the North hasn’t got the talent to do it. We’re blessed with some fantastic universities that have the reputation to attract the best and brightest young people from all over the world. But it’s a sad statistic that 55 per cent of our graduates leave Yorkshire and the Humber, with the vast majority headed for London. It’s no wonder the capital continues to grow while we fall behind – our home-grown talent are the ones helping them to do it!
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Something has already started and it’s exciting. The idea of the Northern Powerhouse has been adopted by businesses in the North and has evolved beyond anything George Osborne could have imagined.
We’re working together, breaking down old rivalries and forging new relationships. Organisations like Tech North and the Northern Health Science Alliance bring together organisations across the North of England to drive growth in the tech and health sectors.
We’re reaching out abroad, selling ourselves directly to foreign investors, creating jobs and driving growth. My fellow Northern Powerhouse Conference Advisory Board member, Sharon Jandu, with the Federation of Asian Businesses is organising a delegation of Northern businesses to India next month on a private-sector led trade mission.
And next February, for the third year running, thousands of business, civic and community leaders will gather at the Northern Powerhouse Conference in Manchester. This is an event created, organised and sponsored by Northern entrepreneurs. Over two days, we will come together to celebrate the successes of a vibrant North. We will meet up, share our ideas and work out how to collaborate to drive growth in the North forward.
It would be nice if the Government would sort out the railways and give us our fair share, yes. But while we wait, there’s plenty more that we can be getting on with in the meantime. We, business leaders, need to create the environment that encourages our young people to flourish and stay put, and use their talent to make the Northern Powerhouse a reality. After all, they’ll be the ones using HS2.
Ajaz Ahmed is the founder of Freeserve and an advisory board member to the Northern Powerhouse Conference.