Stephen Purvis: How Tories can become the party of the North

Should transport investment be targeted at the East Coast main line?
Should transport investment be targeted at the East Coast main line?
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DESPITE tectonic inaccuracies in election polling and forecasting, it is not hard to argue that there is a compelling case to suggest the North of England may now become, politically, a far stronger shade of blue.

If there is an electoral shift to the right and a Conservative success story at the General Election, then there will be a generational opportunity to make serious impact to both the life chances of those in the North of England and to the inflection of the region’s economic trajectory.

I suggest that there are five critical areas in which a newly dominant Conservative party in the North could capitalise and deliver high impact:

Investment in skills. In Policy North’s recent response to the Government’s Industrial Strategy, the entire policy proposal was focussed solely on skills. Before the economic output of the North can be rebalanced, its skills base must be rebuilt and reinforced.

The Government should seek to further promote the work of industry-led educational delivery, particularly in areas of high demand and rapidly-evolving high-skill verticals, particularly: life sciences, software engineering, fintech and agritech.

The fundamental centre-right view that hard work is the primary lever of success must be started earlier, and the continued exposure of children as young as 11 to industrial placements via university technical colleges and industry-led academy groups must be strengthened.

A newly-enabled Conservative political force in the North would have the support to deliver a unique individual training passport and bespoke skills budget for each school leaver, ensuring their pathway to the jobs of the evolving northern economy is expeditious and efficient.

Focus on North-South and not intra-Northern capital investment in travel. HS3 will do little to achieve gross value added per head parity between the North and the South East.Significant investment, over and above that of Hitachi’s “Azuma” trains for Virgin East Coast, is required on the East Coast main line. Capital investment into a next-generation mainline service between Edinburgh and London, providing travelling times from London to Edinburgh and Newcastle of three hours and two hours respectively on express services, is essential.

The GVA per capita return of such a plan would far outstrip that of HS3. The capacity for London-based firms to put staff on a train at 7am and have them at a desk in Newcastle at 9.30am, do a seven-hour working day and be back in the capital for 6.30pm would be a seismic shift in economic workforce mobility, and a key fulcrum to unlock the potential £38bn GDP uplift that is possible if the Northern economy is rebalanced to meet that of the South East (excluding London).

Accelerate free trade in advance of the post-Brexit economy. The North is awash with international-standard trading ports. The establishment, as already outlined by Rishi Sunak and Policy North, of free ports is a key economic accelerant to post-Brexit Britain, and could lead to the creation of up to 68,000 new jobs, according to a study by the Centre for Policy Studies.

A newly-empowered, northern-focused Conservative Government would have the momentum to press ahead with a world-leading pilot project by capitalising upon the positive balance of trade achieved by Sunderland-based Nissan, and declaring a free port area at Port of Tyne. The positive economic data from this trial would form a roadmap for deployment of the concept across the rest of the UK.

Empower the private sector to lead the Local Economic Partnerships. It is essential that the current stranglehold, both politically and administratively, that is placed upon LEPs is cut loose. Business and enterprise is best placed to lead the resurgence of the Northern economy, and the composition of the main LEP boards should reflect this.

The public sector should indeed be represented, but not outnumber or dominate experienced entrepreneurs who understand the scale-up challenge facing the North.

Show the North what Conservatism means. Closing the mines, shipyard decline, loss of milk in primary schools – these remain oft-lauded hallmarks of the Conservative Party here. I have often been asked why, as a former military officer and self-made businessman, I am happy to state publicly my support for the Conservative Party.

I believe that the fundamental genetic identifier of conservatism is that of the impact of effort in self-determination. Effort in education, effort in the workplace, preparedness to take risks in enterprise; these are the factors that lead to success by any measure one may choose.

I believe in social justice and in a strong and robust welfare state. However, the welfare state that I support is there indiscriminately to catch anyone in society who may fall. I do not, as the Labour Party have for too long in the North, believe that the role of the state is to ever-expand in scale and comfort the deliverables of welfare and support.

Northern men and women are hard workers – “grafters” as they often self-identify: the party must win the argument that the Conservatives are the party of hard work, of reward based on effort and determination; not without a safety net, but with a powerful springboard to encourage work.

Stephen Purvis is an technology entrepeneur, and the Chair of Policy North.