Steve Gillingham: Lack of a mayoral voice must not hold region back

Yorkshire is being left behind when it comes to regional devolution.
Yorkshire is being left behind when it comes to regional devolution.
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TODAY marks a pivotal moment in the history of the North of England. Voters in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region have just chosen their first directly-elected mayors.

In Greater Manchester, this new mayor will enjoy a wide range of powers covering policy areas such as transport, housing, education and skills, policing as well as control of a £6bn health and social care budget.

The powers of the Liverpool City Region mayor may not be as far reaching, but the position will still be a transformational one when it comes to local growth, infrastructure and investment.

However, on the eastern side of the Pennines, progress towards devolution appears to have halted.

In my role with Mace, I am responsible for leading our operations across the North of England. Taking a pan-northern look at the current economic landscape, I am pleased to see Liverpool and Manchester taking great strides forward. I am in no doubt there will be some tough decisions to take on the economic and investment priorities – but what is important is that these decisions will soon be made by regional figureheads who understand those cities and will carry more weight with national government.

With this in mind, it is important to reflect on how we ensure towns and cities across the North that have not yet secured a devolution framework, particularly in Yorkshire, do not miss out on these economic opportunities.

The UK has long been recognised as one of the most centralised democracies in the world. For centuries, the vast majority of the UK’s public policy has been created in London and the capital also receives the bulk of public and private sector investment. As a result, London has attracted many of the best workers from across Britain and across the world, creating a brain drain from the regions.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s (NPP) first report evidenced that with the right kind of investment we could see the Northern economy grown by £100bn over the next three decades and deliver 850,000 new jobs. But what does the “right kind of investment” look like?

For me, the most effective and successful investment activity is realised when the public and private sectors work together in partnership to achieve a shared goal. This becomes even more important when we see cities collaborating to bring about an even greater economic impact.

We are already witnessing this here in Yorkshire.

Vast swathes of the county have benefited from the £12bn pot of Local Growth Deal funding. This investment, devolved from central government, is enabling LEPs and Combined Authorities to deliver strategic activity that will bring about new jobs, economic growth and enhanced connectivity.

In Leeds City Region, this investment is beginning to bear fruit. Just last week the new £33m Wakefield Eastern Relief Road opened. That will unlock enough land to deliver over 2,500 homes. In Sheffield, HSBC is investing in a multi-million-pound relocation in the city. Delivered in partnership with the city council and set to bring hundreds of jobs and apprenticeships into South Yorkshire, this is an investment we are proud to be supporting.

This investment is welcome. But more needs to happen to ensure that no part of the North falls behind. Increased transport and infrastructure investment is crucial. Mace’s recently published ‘Infrastructure Charter’ argues that infrastructure is the key to successful regional growth. Our comparatively poor infrastructure, by global standards, is holding Britain back as a place to invest – limiting the growth in our regional economies.

In Leeds and Bradford, we are seeing businesses, politicians and local authorities come together to speak with one voice, and demand that the Government invests in Northern Powerhouse Rail to better connect the two city centres. If secured, that investment would create improved conditions for businesses to thrive, people to access jobs and increase inward investment.

This kind of partnership has the potential to bring billions of pounds to the regional economy. Despite the lack of a mayoral presence, this partnership demonstrates how collectively, the public and private sectors have the potential to deliver significant economic impact that will benefit generations to come.

For too long, parts of the North have been competing with one hand tied behind their back. The North has not had the powers it needs to manage its own income or the powers to determine where our money should best be spent.

Now more than ever – as the country prepares for Brexit and we head into a General Election – the towns and cities of Yorkshire who won’t have an elected mayor this time round, will need a strong public and private sector voice to ensure the county is not left behind. Businesses have a role to play, working with the public sector, to develop this voice and ensure that Yorkshire’s economy continues to thrive.

Steve Gillingham is Director for 
the North and Scotland at Mace 
– an international construction 
and infrastructure consultancy, 
with offices in Leeds.