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Power to the North

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The Northern Powerhouse has been a hot topic of conversation for the last year or so, but understanding how we could achieve it and what it would mean for the region is a complex subject.

I recently attended the UK Northern Powerhouse Conference in Manchester http://www.uk-northern-powerhouse.com/ which raised some interesting issues.  With over 1,000 delegates, the conference was supported by the chief executives of all the major cities in the North and backed by the chairman of the LEPs as well as having Lord O’Neill, commercial secretary to the Treasury, as its keynote speaker.

As one would expect, the conference focussed on how we could work more effectively as a region, particularly with consideration to infrastructure including transport, the built environment and academia.

There’s no doubt that we will be far more effective if we join forces and work together as a region, it is only by doing this that Yorkshire will be able to compete with other regions like the South East and be successful in attracting inward investment.  Rather than the Northern cities competing against each other, we need to adopt a genuinely joined up approach, playing to one another’s strengths and reminding people that, together, we are still a force to be reckoned with. We need to remind ourselves of the power house the region has been and arguably still is - with a combined GNP ranking potential of 10th in the EU, we have a great platform to build upon. It has been calculated that the northern regional economy is twice that of the Scottish economy.

Not only will a united Northern Powerhouse be more likely to attract central government investment in essential infrastructure like transport, we will also be able to collaborate more effectively with the 30 universities across the North to ensure that their skills and research support private enterprise.

We need to focus on strengthening links between private business and academia.  One of our most impressive assets is the quality of our universities in the North, particularly the N8 Research Partnership which brings together eight of the most research intensive universities in the region.  If we can better harness and embed their innovation, aligning their research with the private sector, it will enable us to compete more effectively in the global market.

When you look at the relatively short distances between Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield and the other regional hubs, it seems absurd that it is so difficult and time consuming to travel between the North’s largest cities.  There’s no doubt that the transport systems are woefully inadequate and I think the starting point to strengthening the North’s economy has to be improving connectivity within the region.  We then need to look at our links with the rest of the UK and beyond – having Manchester Airport so close is a huge benefit on which we should capitalise.

Within 40 miles of Manchester, you have Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire – a belt of cities and towns that contains ten million people – more than Tokyo, New York or London.

Bring those cities together, connect Liverpool to Hull, the North West to Yorkshire and the North East – and the whole will be greater than the parts.

We also need to understand where there are traditional skills and competencies across the region which still have relevance in the world economy today.  For example, with problems such as growing obesity and the issues surrounding an ageing populations, healthcare will remain a key sector and, historically, the region has strength in depth across much of the supply chain.

The North has a real competency in advanced manufacturing; we need to optimise this by moving up the supply chain and using our advanced engineering skills.   We are great at innovation, but we need to make sure that we are able to commercialise it.

What next?

The general consensus in the North seems to be that devolution would be a positive move.  There is now a genuine desire to join together for a greater purpose – we need to convince central government to invest in the North, enabling us to attract more overseas investment.  From what I have seen, the region’s leaders seem to be talking to one another and starting to build trust; we need to believe in the strength of the North rather than being bogged down in outdated sub-regionality.

The success or failure of the Northern Powerhouse lies very much in our own self-belief to want it to succeed.  If we can formulate cohesive plans and put forward coherent business cases with clear vision and strong leadership, I think the Government is ready to listen.  There is a willingness to support the North, but we need to break down barriers and persuade Westminster of the tangible benefits we can deliver.

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