THROUGHOUT my long career in business, never have the fortunes of the north of England felt so important in deciding the result of a general election.
This is why the ‘Power Up the North’ campaign – led by our region’s newspapers and supported by businesses and local politicians of every hue – remains so important in the final days before we all cast our votes.
There is, of course, a political logic that shows that northern voters – around a quarter of the UK’s population – will be critical in deciding the outcome of the election, especially in the so-called ‘northern line’ of leave-leaning Labour-held seats which could swing to the Conservatives.
But as a businessman, it is the economic logic that is just as important. I am incredibly concerned about the rising levels of regional inequality and I believe that, with the right conditions, northern businesses – small, medium and large – can put this right.
This is why I formed the One Powerhouse Consortium – an organisation that believes that a healthy national economy is one that fires on all cylinders and urgently needs a new approach to regional development and a spatial plan for every major region in England.
In the run-up to the election, the One Powerhouse Consortium, working closely with the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), has commissioned a Populus survey to test the views of Northern voters on some of the key issues concerning economic growth here.
Unsurprisingly, 70 per cent of those we surveyed think that the North gets a bad deal from government, with only 11 per cent believing that the North gets its fair share of cash.
Prospective candidates should take note that 55 per cent of northerners say they are more likely to vote for candidates who pledge more investment in the North.
We also found that there was huge support for nearly all of the demands being made by the Power Up the North campaign:
73 per cent of northerners said they agreed we need to overhaul the region’s road and rail network with devolved funding and powers to run local buses and trains;
75 per cent said we need to accelerate investment in the North’s digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, and support creative industries.
78 per cent said government must make additional investment available for the North’s schools, colleges and universities to boost skills training.
While investment in infrastructure projects is vital, it might not solve all our challenges. In our survey, 74 per cent of respondents said government must put its full weight behind a bespoke Industrial Strategy for the north of England to enable every sector of the economy, from manufacturing to farming, to flourish.
And 66 per cent think the economy would be stronger if we had a regional strategy for economic growth. The One Powerhouse Consortium believes firmly in the transformative potential of regional spatial planning.
Spatial planning is the ‘where’ of decisions. It looks at a defined geographical area and makes an assessment of everything contained in that area – towns, cities, housing, schools, universities, roads, rails, airports, offices, factories, hospitals, energy sources, museums, parks and leisure activities – and makes a plan to develop those assets for the benefit of the people who live in that region, now and for the future.
It is well understood that countries and regions around the world have used spatial planning to focus political will, economic activity and social reform to great effect. Notable examples include Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr, Holland’s Randstad and New York City’s Regional Plan Association.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have spatial economic strategies that guide investment and development and Greater London benefits from this approach too. A proper spatial plan for the North – and indeed for the Midlands, South East and South West – has potential to provide a solid basis for really ambitious economic development. Development that has opportunity and sustainability at its heart. And it is surely here that any Brexit dividend must be directed.
Our regional newspapers get it. Our local politicians and businesses get it. Our survey shows that the public gets it too. All that remains is for national politicians to embrace a new, bottom-up approach to regional development and to stump up the long-promised cash. As the clock counts down to election day, national parties parliamentary candidates should take note.
Sir Hugh Sykes is chair of the One Powerhouse Consortium and former chair of Sheffield Development Corporation. Further information about the One Powerhouse Consortium can be found at www.onepowerhouseconsortium.co.uk