Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry considers plan for new body run by region's leaders to boost North's economy

Jake Berry speaks at a conference in Leeds earlier this year.
Jake Berry speaks at a conference in Leeds earlier this year.
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A powerful new body run by northern leaders could be set up to boost the region's economy as part of efforts by the Government to bring the devolution agenda back to life, The Yorkshire Post has learned.

Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry, recently promoted to a role attending the Cabinet under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is looking into the proposals suggested by northern business leaders.

The Conservative MP is considering new ideas as part of a planned refresh of the Government's Northern Powerhouse Strategy, last published in November 2016 in the early days of Theresa May's premiership.

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Ministers want to give the project new impetus after three years where critics accused the Government of failing to back the concept originally coined by former Chancellor George Osborne.

It is also felt a new strategy for boosting the economy is needed to reflect the fact that Brexit has changed the political landscape and that nearly 50 per cent of the North now has metro mayors in place.

The plan is still in its early stages and no decisions have been made but the body could be similar to Transport for the North, the strategic body led set up to create a long-term vision for transport across the region of 15 million people.

The Yorkshire Post understands that business leaders, who meet twice a week with Mr Berry, have proposed a body in the North to oversee the Northern Powerhouse agenda which would be run by the region's leaders rather than central government.

They felt a pan-northern organisation was needed due to concerns that local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) - set up to help determine local economic priorities and lead economic growth and job creation - are too small to be effective.

The NP11, a government-funded board made up of the leaders of the North's LEPs, was launched last year to advise the Government on how to tackle the North-South divide.

And Roger Marsh, who chairs the NP11 board as well as the Leeds City Region LEP, said business leaders had been "discussing with Government the powers and structures needed to realise our ambitions for extraordinary inclusive growth in the North that will benefit all in society and UK plc as a whole".

Though no specifics have been confirmed, the new body would have 'powers and levers' to be effective and would be designed to complement the work of councils, LEPs and metro mayors rather than detract from what they are doing.

A government source said the idea wasn't something Mr Berry was pushing but that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was open to hearing ideas.

He said: "It's exceptionally early days, but we’re looking at all positive suggestions from business and civic leaders.

"We are nowhere near making a decision and something of that scale may require primary legislation."

It comes as northern political and business leaders prepare to gather for the second Convention of the North event at the Magna Science Adventure Centre, in Rotherham, on September 13. A senior Cabinet Minister is expected to represent the Government and ideas for boosting northern growth will be discussed further.

Transport for the North was granted statutory status last year, meaning its proposals must be considered by the Government when spending decisions are made. But the body is entirely dependent on central government to fund its work and has no revenue-raising powers.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership representing civic and business leaders, said: “The government is right to be pre-occupied with how it can transfer powers and public spending decisions from Whitehall to the Northern Powerhouse to support the project of rebalancing the British economy.

"However, I do not believe a new northern Whitehall-led body was ever seriously considered or would be proposed - but something led and run by the mayors, civic and business leaders here in the Northern Powerhouse is worth considering.

“Transport for the North already has governance drawn from our metro mayors, wider combined authorities like West Yorkshire alongside the remaining individual councils and counties.

"If we are to devolve the full Highways England and Network Rail budget to the North, as the National Infrastructure Commission supports, or full responsibility for many rail services under the upcoming Williams Review, that will require a debate between the northern leaders about the right evolution in structures.

“Apart from narrow areas like strategic transport or national schools powers, most Whitehall budgets can be devolved through further devolution to existing Mayors with further progress on deals to cover the whole North – 100 per cent devo.

"However, if we get a significant further transfer of powers and funding on transport or education in the North that is the time to talk structures – in particular, to protect the current far-too-limited powers and responsibilities at local level being undermined or eroded, in line with the subsidiarity principle.”

The proposal is one of several being explored by Whitehall officials and northern leaders to aid the North since the arrival of Boris Johnson as PM. It follows his pledge to deliver high speed rail between Leeds and Manchester.

Roger Marsh said: “Since establishing the NP11 last year, alongside our programme of policy development work we have been discussing with Government the powers and structures needed to realise our ambitions for extraordinary inclusive growth in the North that will benefit all in society and UK plc as a whole.

“In line with the rest of NP11’s work, any formal structure would need to add significant value to what is already being done at local and regional level and promote meaningful collaboration across the North.

“The conference co-hosted by NP11 and Convention of the North on 13 September at Magna Science Adventure Centre, in Rotherham, will be a great opportunity for public and private sector representatives and Government to consider this further.”

David Kerfoot, who chairs the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership, said: "We need to press ahead with devo as fast as possible to ensure the North and Yorkshire get their fair share of funding.

"So if some form of body is created which will ensure that happens fine. However business is sometimes very confused about what the Northern Powerhouse is and does - there are too many offshoots and related organisations so let’s try and keep it simple and focused to achieve the goal we both need and want as quickly as possible."