Barry Sheerman: United voice for a region still full of enterprising spirit

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WHETHER you loved or loathed regional development agencies in general or Yorkshire Forward in particular, the fact is that we now have no single organisation that stands up for Yorkshire and Humber, promotes our region internationally or focuses on the challenges we face today.

While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a parliament or assembly, we in Yorkshire and Humber – with a population larger than Scotland – have nothing that unites us for common action, or even provides us with a forum for discussion.

A few weeks ago, Yorkshire and Humber MPs of all political parties met with leaders of local councils to discuss the opportunities offered by the impending development of off-shore wind power along our coast line. Reflecting on the success of the meeting in bringing all interested groups together, it was suggested that the time was ripe for the formation of an All Party Group that would take on the task of articulating the interests of our region.

Our new All Party Group has now been registered and we have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm with which the initiative has been welcomed. Andrew Percy, MP for Brigg & Goole, and I are chairing the group and, in co-operation with our members, are working on the preparation of an active programme of events.

If Yorkshire is to learn from history, we must remember that prosperity rests in delivering to the world the goods and services that the world desires. In manufacturing, design, innovation, tourism and knowledge, we must not flinch from again being seen as the workshop of the world. A very different workshop, with some very interesting sets of new skills and products to counter the latest rise in unemployment.

To deliver on this challenge we have to find the entrepreneurs who can lead the transformation that is required.

We have produced many of the finest entrepreneurs, artists, innovators, scientists and technicians the world has ever seen. Now we must redouble our efforts to do so again and it is to our universities and colleges we must look to help us in this endeavour.

We also need established entrepreneurs and senior business people to assist in the stimulation of new talent by mentoring, investing and partnering with universities and colleges.

New ideas, new entrepreneurs and new businesses all need sources of financial backing at a time when our financial services sector has been under tremendous pressure, we may need to re-invent the existing paradigm and establish a regional banking sector.

Other nations such as Germany have both local and regional banks – we too have the basis for serious development of financial services and products that must be prepared to invest in new centres located in the North.

As the discussion on off-shore wind power highlighted, there are certain key issues that are particularly suited to high-level, regional strategic coordination – infrastructure being a prime example.

No single MP or local authority can plan for a region’s economic future – and we cannot rely on others to provide critical strategic regional thinking, to fill the gap that has been left since Yorkshire Forward’s demise.

Skills and education, both of which have been the focus of a great deal of my Parliamentary activity over many years, must also be high on our agenda.

The good news is Yorkshire and Humber, compared with the rest of the UK, still has a greater proportion of jobs in the manufacturing sector. This proves that we have people in work with the skills that can attract investment and boost the region’s economy.

However, a lower proportion of Yorkshire and Humber’s workforce are engaged in the service sector which has grown dramatically in recent years in other parts of the UK. This suggests that there is scope for growth in this sector, as well as in manufacturing.

The worrying news is that we have a significant proportion of employees in the region who work in the public sector – keeping our schools, hospitals and local authorities in good shape – and they will continue to face tough times ahead as the public sector reductions continue to bite.

Our regional unemployment figures are the fourth highest in England and unemployment is hitting our young people hardest.

While we are currently stronger in manufacturing than most other regions, we face major employment challenges related to the level of available skills. In our region, just over 26 per cent of our people have an NVQ Level 4 or above whilst in the rest of the UK the level is over 31 per cent.

We are innovative, enterprising and industrious people but we need to focus on a meaningful strategy, and an ambitious direction, if we are to provide a good life for Yorkshire folk and I will continue to work to achieve this.

There is much to be done. Let’s get on with it.

* Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield. He is co-chairman of a newly-formed All Party Group fighting Yorkshire’s corner at Parliament.