AT a time of political turbulence and uncertainty the like of which we have never seen before, taking the Northern Powerhouse agenda forward is a significant challenge.
With Government departments and Ministers tied up dealing with their mismanaged attempt at negotiating Brexit, the people of the North are not being heard and the fundamental challenge of rebalancing our economy is stalling.
However, the comments earlier this week from Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry provided a much-needed intervention that deserves to be scrutinised and considered by his Government colleagues and Northern leaders alike.
The Minister, who has embraced his role with a gusto not shown by his predecessors – visiting Northern companies to speak to the workers about the challenges they face and engaging with our business leaders – called for taxes raised in the North to be spent in the North, and for further, bespoke devolution deals to be proposed.
As director of the body representing business and civic leaders across the North, I welcome Jake’s comments as an example of the bold, innovative solutions we need to make the Northern Powerhouse vision a reality.
Whatever the outcome of the current Brexit stalemate, it is clear that our country will need to be brought back together and the Northern Powerhouse can lead the way post-Brexit.
The unique aspect of the Northern Powerhouse, and what separates it in economic terms from other parts of the UK, is the proximity of our great cities. Connecting them more effectively, not simply with major infrastructure but with collaboration and partnership, can create a virtual city – capable of producing something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Transport is, of course, the major barrier to this vision becoming a reality. The timetabling chaos on our railways pushed an already-sub-standard service into complete disarray – causing at least a £38m hit to productivity. We have been working closely with leaders here in the North to urge the Government to devolve further powers to Transport for the North (TfN), ensuing this never happens again.
The big prize is Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the transformational east-west scheme which links our cities with greater frequency, faster journey times and enhanced capacity. NPR will see the number of people able to access four or more of the North’s major cities within an hour rise from 10,000 currently to 1.3 million. It will stimulate economic growth, attract investment and create opportunities for our young people.
Alongside NPR, ensuring HS2 comes to the North is critical. This is not about getting to London more quickly. It is about the transformation of our economy, an example of which is what Leeds City Council is doing with developers like CEG on the South Bank. This is not and cannot be an either/or situation – we need both HS2 and NPR to kickstart productivity here.
In order for our young people to take advantage of the job opportunities a transformed transport network could create, we must address the major gap in educational attainment between North and South. In the areas with greatest economic disadvantage, too many schools are below standard. That’s why we have committed to push to close the gap and have as many good and outstanding schools as London by the end of 2022.
The Convention of the North, which brings together the political leaders of the Northern Powerhouse, supported our case for the North to take more control of our schools, ensuring that we can drive up standards. But it also needs more government funding and support. It is not inevitable that those who grow up in homes where there is poverty throughout their childhood do worse; schools, in Bradford for example, are doing things differently to give children the best start.
The progress made by the North’s elected mayors has shown the benefits of devolution to the region. The Northern Powerhouse Minister’s comments should give encouragement for all of those forward-thinking authorities looking for taking control of their own regions. Nowhere is this more vital than here in Yorkshire. Concluding the devolution settlement here, including getting powers in the interim in Sheffield City Region before a long-term solution, cannot wait any longer. All those involved need to work together. I am confident they will do so.
We need the Northern Powerhouse to come together and speak as one. The Great Northern Conference 2019, on February 26 in Leeds, will bring together influential political and business figures to debate the key issues.
Five years on from the creation of the Northern Powerhouse, the conference will hear from its architects George Osborne and Lord Jim O’Neill, as well as Andy Burnham, Siemens UK CEO Professor Juergen Maier, University of Manchester Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, and Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail.
This is our opportunity, as the North, to put forward innovative, collaborative ways to create a better future for the 15 million people here.
Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.