Mark Casci: Working together can make us a true Powerhouse

Hope is a hard thing to come by in 2019, and faith harder still. But this last seven days have given me more of these two all so important states of mind than most in recent times.

26 February 2019 ...... Dr John Sentamu, Arch Bishop of York speaking at The Great Northern Conference 2019 at New Dock, Royal Armouries in Leeds. Picture Tony Johnson.

They came from fairly desperate locations, from Leeds’s New Dock Hall and from outer space.

I don’t intend to use this week’s column to make a case for a Yorkshire equivalent of the inspiring Space X programme (although if anyone wants to take this on you will have my full support).

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But I do want to talk about last week’s Great Conference for the North. We, alongside the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) and several of the North’s leading blue chip companies, held the day-long event on Tuesday and brought together dozens of the North’s leading innovators, wealth creators and civic leaders.

As I arrived home late on Tuesday evening from this event I was able to verify to myself what I have suspected for a long time, namely that we in the North of England of today possess the leadership, vision, innovation and hunger to truly deliver something special for this country.

While many MPs traded insults on the floor of the House of Commons, cemented into positions based purely on ideology and self-interest, the message from the conference was one of a greater good and one that transcended traditional regional tribal loyalties.

Take for example Professor Keith Ridgeway from South Yorkshire’s AMRC, an organisation that can literally be classed as a Northern Powerhouse in its own right, developing some of the most cutting edge technologies that exist on the planet right now.

His view was that the North was far better pursuing a common goal, rather than competing against each other.

Take also Gavin Opperman of Yorkshire Bank, who talked about how he wished his organisation to be the business bank of the North, with the SME sector its primary focus in this regard.

Consider David Horne of LNER announcing that new state-of-the-art Azuma trains will begin serving the North this year, with Leeds their first stop.

And then throw into the mix the likes of Dame Nancy Rothwell from Manchester University, Rick Robinson from Arup, Mark Collins from CityFibre and Helen Oldham from NorthInvest – all of whom spelt out examples of innovation happening right here and right now in the North of England.

However, this was no list of bragging rights or sales pitch to external investors.

This event was a message, loud and clear to the whole of the United Kingdom, that the North stands ready and extremely able to help deliver a more prosperous, advanced and fair economy – not just for ourselves but the entire nation.

Of course we knew the issues affecting us going in to the event.

There was so much in the way of great ideas about how we can massively upgrade our infrastructure and skill levels but as the day went on it became clearer how inextricably linked the two of these issues are. A better connected North will uplift our skills levels and in turn allow us to attract in, retain and develop our knowledge base.

The Northern Powerhouse was launched five years ago and it has had some ups and downs. And as I wrote last week, it is clear that this Government has little regard for its aims and objectives. However, in the nearly three years I have held this job, I have regularly reported on how the concept enjoys widespread support amongst the region’s business leaders.

It seems unlikely that Teresa May will be Prime Minister for much longer. With any luck the Brexit mess somehow comes to resemble the work of a great jazz player, and resolve itself from the chaos.

Henri Murison, director of the NPP, closed the event by calling for the North to not just come together when there is a crisis, but on a daily basis.

I am absolutely convinced that this is the way forward. We must collectively push harder and louder than ever for the Northern Powerhouse to be given unequivocal backing at the highest level. Then, like the Space X project, we can together push our ambitions to the highest limit.