Why businesses want devolution at heart of Boris Johnson's plans for the North: Christine Hewson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech on domestic priorities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester in front of Stephenson's Rocket. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech on domestic priorities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester in front of Stephenson's Rocket. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
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Boris Johnson delivered his maiden speech in the North as Prime Minister with Stephenson’s Rocket looming behind him. The engine has long been consigned to a museum – sometimes it feels like the Northern Powerhouse has, too.

There is a long-held view that transport connectivity is the number one issue facing the future of the Northern Powerhouse. Braving the commute by road or rail anywhere in the North is evidence enough.

What will Boris Johnson do for Yorkshire cities like Sheffield?

What will Boris Johnson do for Yorkshire cities like Sheffield?

The pledge to push through a Leeds to Manchester high-speed line might just pump some more steam into the initiative. Our business community has been tooting this horn for years and will welcome efforts to improve our creaking infrastructure. Quite simply, better connectivity leads to better productivity.

If we are to compete as a region and fulfil our potential in a post-Brexit world, we need the foundations to build from.

That starts with infrastructure to help bring job opportunities to the people and the right skills to ambitious businesses and institutions. Fundamentally, it is about creating a cohesive economic unit with scale.

The North will be encouraged that Mr Johnson recognises this. However, that isn’t the only message coming from the North.

We can’t forget the warning fired by the EU Referendum – the benefits of globalisation have not reached enough people in recent decades. Therefore, the case for a robust and inclusive regional economic growth policy is as strong as ever – not just in the North, but it is also being made across the country.

Business leaders will watch closely as to whether Mr Johnson can follow this announcement with a cohesive suite of policies to underpin the Northern Powerhouse agenda and other initiatives, such as the Midlands Engine and the need to drive growth in the South beyond the capital.

That strategy must also recognise that the North is home to more than just the great cities of Manchester and Leeds.

For example, a rail link from Liverpool, all the way through to Hull and Newcastle is the dream and widely considered to be the real key to unlocking the North’s economic power.

Similarly, the North isn’t just made of its industrious cities. Our towns and villages are equally important and need investment.

In Yorkshire alone, the profile of our economy is diverse and expansive – from tourist hotpots and bustling service-led city centres to agriculturally-dependent villages, former mining towns and energy hubs hugging our coastline.

The successful Channel 4 bid emphasises this point.

The win demonstrated Leeds’s outstanding credentials as a major hub for media and culture, but also the potential to attract considerable in-bound investment.

Thoughts have quickly turned to how the city can retain and attract the best talent in the UK. But also, more importantly, how the wider City region, beyond Leeds, can make the most of the opportunity and capitalise on its success.

This is a challenge that we’ve also seen at the core of Manchester’s own industrial strategy.

So, while the renewed impetus on the North’s economic future is encouraging it must be comprehensive if it is to succeed and win the hearts and minds of its people.

And finally, we’ve heard a lot about taking back control.

The North is hungry to take control of its own future, we’ve seen that at the ballot boxes, town halls and spread across our proud local newspapers.

South Yorkshire appointed its mayor for the Sheffield City Region last year and, we’ve recently seen fresh proposals for Yorkshire devolution already in the first few days of Mr Johnson’s tenure.

Admittedly, there are still challenges facing devolution in Yorkshire, but a renewed momentum on Northern Powerhouse may focus minds in a bid to make progress.

Across the North, there have already been some major steps towards devolution. But, if the Government is serious in rebuilding the Northern Powerhouse momentum, it needs to reaffirm its commitment to that journey to moving the concentration of power out of Westminster.

Of course, we’ve heard these promises before, even made in the same museum.

So, forgive us if the reception is cautious.

Time will tell whether this latest rallying cry will fire up region’s engine, or whether it will slow to standstill and leave Northern voters stranded once again.

Christine Hewson is Northern Chair at accountancy firm KPMG.