Sir Keith Burnett: Looking East to China to regenerate the North

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I WAS pleased and surprised that the Chancellor of the Exchequer chose ‘the Northern Powerhouse’ as one of his big themes for the visit to China .

Let’s be frank. This is due to the energy and commitment of his Commercial Secretary Lord O’Neill of Gately to regenerate the cities of the North where he was deeply proud to have grown up.

As the chairman of the City Growth Commission now working on devolution deals in the Treasury, he is a powerful advocate for the view that the UK can only be rebalanced economically and socially if the North plays its proper part.

Jim has been ably helped by Sir Michael Bear, one time Lord Mayor of the City of London and a man who has for decades been behind many of the most important regeneration deals across this country.

Michael is a brilliant strategist who also has years of experience of working in China, but he delights in delivering real projects. He came to be a civic leader as an unexpected consequence of having rallied the tradesmen of a once unfashionable district of London to create it’s now vibrant Spitalfields Market. He knows that doing the deals which bring economic change takes vision and work.

But still, I really wondered, what our Chinese hosts would make of our group? Why would it seem strange to me? First of all, the North of the UK is a very small region compared to the vast scope and economic power of China.

Anyone who visits Beijing or sees the skyscrapers of Shanghai edging a river of tankers and giant cargo ships weighed down with steel, concrete and coal must catch their breath at the sight of how cities are driving economic transformation for a nation of 1.4 billion people.

We met our Chinese counterparts in one of the great guest houses of Beijing where Jim, Michael and our civic leaders pitched hard for the regeneration potential of our own region. I was impressed at the quality of Chinese developers and investors who came to listen to our ideas for change, and who sensed that – at this time of economic reform for their country – now is an auspicious moment to internationalise and broaden the base of their quite breathtaking commercial energy.

But the Chinese also had reason to be impressed. Our small party came with a superb track record delivered by people of real talent. In the city of London and in their work with Sir Michael Bear and Boris Johnson, China has seen what a great metropolitan district can do to drive growth and change. And they recognise the globally-leading talent of architects, construction companies and developers in the UK. They see opportunities to bet on our future and China is already investing in Britain.

It is not just the recent announcements of Chinese delivery of nuclear power in Britain. One Chinese investor we met – CIC – owns a 10 per cent stake in Heathrow and an 8.7 per cent stake in Thames Water. Nor are they restricted to the UK. Highly successful companies such as the Metallurgical Corporation of China build property, bridges and roads from Africa to the Indian sub-continent and Europe. And George Osborne wants to see more – he has called for Chinese bids for high speed rail and for regeneration projects in Manchester and Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds.

We can’t be sure what the result of these investment discussions might be, but if you think that Jim O’Neill and Michael Bear sold the North short, you would be wrong. I, for one, would be astonished if their words fell on stony ground. I was also pleased to see how our civic leaders worked together, showing a solidarity for the North of England.

Certainly, the idea of a Northern Powerhouse has its fair share of doubters. But if a great nation now driving its own 21st century industrial revolution can come to the cradle of another, then I would not want to diminish what that can mean. Think of Shanghai’s 18 new metro lines, 71 new Chinese airports, high-speed rail from Beijing to the regions completed in just four years.

The Chinese remind me of that pillar of the National Union of Mine Workers, Mick McGahey, who, asked by the Press if he had anything to say, simply responded, “Yes, get out of the bloody road.”

If the North works with China, seemingly intractable obstacles and inertia may be overcome. And how surely we need that spirit and energy to drive change for the people of this region.

Sir Keith Burnett is Vice-Chancellor of The University of Sheffield. He accompanied Chancellor George Osborne on last week’s trade mission to China.