Great Northern Conference 2019: Where the North leads, the government must follow
Yesterday saw the inaugural Great Northern Conference, bringing together civic leaders and business figures from across the North in a show of strength and regional re-commitment to the Northern Powerhouse. The conference came on the back of a stinging Yorkshire Post editorial published on the same day by former Chancellor George Osborne, in which he castigated the government for a ‘lack of vision.’ The former MP is leading an uncompromising call for the government to return to his Northern Powerhouse agenda, which was jettisoned after the post-Brexit resignations of July 2016.
There were two key takeaways from the conference: firstly, a real sense that senior figures in various Northern devolution, transport, and connectivity projects were frustrated – perhaps even tired of being frustrated – by lack of central government commitment to previous promises. Secondly, there is an urgent need to bring together Northern leaders on concrete proposals which can be presented with one voice. Whether that unity is intra- as well as inter-regional will soon be apparent, but it is increasingly clear that cross-sector collaboration is becoming the private sector strategy in a period of low political energy. Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry’s suggestion that ‘the government constantly needs challenging from the North of England’ may have bristled with some, who are tired of having suggestions for devolved policy (like the recent rejection of the One Yorkshire proposal) knocked back by Westminster.
For a conference which has previously been relatively challenging to bring together, there was a remarkable alignment in the panels’ key messages. Paired with the publication of the most recent Northern Powerhouse Partnership report ‘Next Steps for the Northern Powerhouse’, the #OneNorth agenda seems to be bringing clear proposals to the table. A great variety of policy options are being explored, from education (a new Northern schools board) to transport (HS2 and NPR to be built by 2033) and a call for further devolution recommendations (for Cheshire and Warrington, Yorkshire and the Humber, and Lancaster and South Cumbria).
Throughout the day there were key contributions from major figures. Susan Hinchcliffe, the leader of Bradford City Council, insisted on the need to bring together employers with schools, and supplement these connections with central government funding for Early Years programmes. Bradford, a city with 25% of its population under the age of 16, would seem particularly well-placed to deliver programmes targeted at improving outcomes for the most deprived children. With education secretary Damian Hinds recently backing Early Years projects with £18m of funding, the potential benefits for life chances improvements in the North remain key to developing (and retaining) the skills needed, and this was emphasised by all panellists.
Sarah Longlands, of the think tank IPPR North, summarised their latest report, ‘SMEs and Productivity in the Northern Powerhouse.’ Here there was a focus on inclusive growth, noting that some areas of the North – namely Cheshire East and West – were outperforming the South East as a whole. Jake Berry echoed these comments. There was no point in replacing a North-South divide with an East-West or urban-rural split, especially at a time of such heightened national division.
Lord Jim O’Neill was particularly clear about the potential for devolution to cause political problems in Westminster. The future of devolution is ultimately ‘more important than Brexit,’ he said, with regional inequalities driving a sense of political dissatisfaction with Westminster politics. He was more circumspect about Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake’s call for a select committee to hold the Government to account on its Northern Powerhouse promises. Change happens at cabinet level or it doesn’t happen, he suggested. He was also clear, however, that the Government’s rejection of the One Yorkshire deal was the correct decision, instead suggesting that four urban-based devolution deals for Yorkshire should be resurrected.
The frustration that the Northern Powerhouse and devolution agenda is being crowded out by Brexit is palpable wherever you go in the North, but especially so since many are convinced that the vote to leave the EU was a symptom of much deeper problems with the democratic process. Giving the North its own powers to raise transport funding – a key recommendation in the Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s report – was emphasised by all panellists as a means to an end, including improving outcomes in health, education, and productivity. Whether devolution’s advocates can convince the Government that it is an answer to wider constitutional crises remains to be seen, but expect to see more talk after 29 March (or whenever the leave date is) about devolution’s ability to address deep national division.
There was widespread backing in the room for Transport for the North’s £39bn rail investment proposals, and an insistence that HS2 be delivered alongside Northern Powerhouse Rail. Connectivity – both in terms of transport infrastructure and digital – is clearly a concern for Northern leaders. Mark Collins at CityFibre hammered home the increasing prospect of cross-sector convergence, and Rick Robinson at Arup emphasised the increased importance of data as infrastructure. It was clear that, whilst Northerners crawl between stations on Pacer trains, the next stage of a huge industrial revolution in digital technology is coming fast. Furthermore, the birth of exciting new projects such as the Aerotropolis at Doncaster and the Siemens’ ‘Railway Village’ in Goole shows the regions leading where central government funding for fibre optic provision and transport must follow.
The final panel of the day, focusing on innovation, emphasised the need for capital investment in innovative projects to be partnered with state investment in infrastructure. It was suggested that in HS2 and NPR, as well as fibre rollout and education and skills funding, the North is attempting to create the conditions within which its own people, places, and partnerships – across the public and private sectors – can thrive. The big takeaway from the conference was that this innovation needs to be supported by investment and devolution of powers in order to improve outcomes for people across the North.
In conclusion, we wait to see whether the proposals put forward by various organisations, not just the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, but crucially Transport for the North – including its £39bn proposal for transport funding – will be met. It is most likely that there are some tough decisions ahead on Northern infrastructure priorities, though whether the inclusivity of growth – as raised by Jake Berry – can be ensured despite expected cuts to proposed budgets is less certain. Nevertheless, there is certainly a huge sense of urgency from across the North for the government to recommit to the Northern Powerhouse.