Wanted: a tighter focus on North’s economic driver

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By Mike Cowley

Top row, left to right: „„

Professor Koen Lamberts is vicechancellor of the University of York and chair of the N8 Research Partnership group of universities. A Belgian psychologist, his N8 responsibilities include oversight of strategic research collaborations with business and public sector research. „„

Clive Memmott has been chief executive of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce since 2010. Before that, he was a director of executive recruitment consultancy Robinson Keane. He is also chairman of Enworks, a programme to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the North West improve their economic performance. „„

Rob Cotton is chief executive of NCC Group plc, the world’s largest independent cybersecurity consultancy, which recently entered the FTSE 250. He rescued the original National Computing Centre and turned the Manchester-based business around, so that it now has 1,800 staff worldwide.

Bottom row, left to right: „„

Joe Anderson is the directly elected mayor of Liverpool, having won the post with 59 per cent of the 2012 vote. Known for strong views and an ability to express them, this popular Labour politician lists his previous professions as social worker and seafarer. „„

Neil Lees is deputy chair of Peel Group, once described as “the biggest company you have never heard of ”. Peel is embedded in the North as the developer of Liverpool docks, the Manchester Ship Canal and MediaCityUK. „„

Jane Boardman became, at 31, the youngest-ever partner with Deloitte and is now responsible for regional stakeholders and influencers. She recognises that by having a wellconnected business community in the North, working together, “we can have an even greater impact on the regional economy”.

Overheard in the lobby of Manchester’s five-star Lowry Hotel, a visitor asking the concierge: “Where do I catch the tram to the Northern powerhouse?” The answer came that there is no such tram, nor is there currently such a destination.

The reality is the Northern powerhouse remains very much a concept without any actual shape or form, lacking a defined spokesperson to represent its interests – simply a good idea waiting to happen. While there has been much discussion since its announcement by the Chancellor, George Osborne, it does not as yet have its own building or even a website. There is also the question of where devolution ends and the powerhouse begins.

The Northern powerhouse does, however, have its own Government minister in the form of James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, and there is even a publication dedicated to ensuring that it becomes a reality – namely this one, Super North in The Times.

And it fell to Super North to hold a major Forum in Manchester to review what has happened to the Northern powerhouse thus far, to predict what is likely to happen in the future – and finally to try and pin down what on earth the powerhouse really is.

The Forum attracted many of the political heavyweights from the region, along with a capacity audience who filled the boardroom of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. The only intended panellist who failed to make it – and this for an event held in his home city – was Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council, who had been called away to a meeting with Jim O’Neill (now Lord O’Neill of Gatley), where once again the Northern powerhouse was on the agenda.

Chaired by Alasdair Nimmo of Super North, the Forum was not a love-in for the Northern powerhouse, rather a real attempt to put it under the collective microscope, with differences in interpretation ensuring a lively and at times fractious debate.

It was Joe Anderson, the elected mayor of Liverpool, who set the scene when asked what lessons had been learned thus far. He took the opportunity to have a tilt at central Government – “of whatever political persuasion” – for its previous failure to rebalance the economy which has led to this new initiative.

“There has to be investment in the North and support given to the North,” Mr Anderson said. “It has been useful to have the phrase ‘the Northern powerhouse’ in terms of FDI [foreign direct investment], because it has put us on the map in countries like China and the US.” He admitted, however, that there was confusion between devolution and the Northern powerhouse: “I think they are separate but linked, but the badge is useful.”

Clive Memmott of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce found himself agreeing that there was a danger in confusing the two, as they are “interconnected but different”. He reminded the audience that Manchester had been working on devolution for 15 years, and he saw the Northern powerhouse as being primarily about connectivity.

“When you connect Manchester to Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, there are 10 million people and 26 universities and one of the biggest economies in Europe,” Mr Memmott said. “Pivotal to all this is that the infrastructure has to change.”

Rob Cotton of NCC Group took a more critical stance. Representing what has become a global company with 32 offices worldwide, he saw the Northern powerhouse as “somewhat unfocused”, and added that it didn’t do very much for him. “It shouldn’t be all about infrastructure,” Mr Cotton said, “it should be about trying to change direction.”

From the chair, Alasdair Nimmo raised the tempo of the debate by asking whether some people viewed the powerhouse as simply a political sop to pacify the North, or as a way for the Government to dump some of its own problems.

“That’s why you’ve got to be careful about putting everything into the basket of the Northern powerhouse,” Joe Anderson said. “That’s why it needs to be separate from devolution. Without the powerhouse label, it’s hard to explain what you mean.

“But the powerhouse isn’t just about devolution, it’s about rebalancing the economy. What we are trying to achieve is sustainability, that’s what this is all about.”

Neil Lees of Peel Group – a major contributor to infrastructure, having invested £700 million in MediaCityUK and significantly greater sums in the Liverpool deep water port and the resurrection of the Manchester Ship Canal – offered his thoughts.

“We look at infrastructure as maximising the connectivity across the North,” he said. “If you go back 100 years, infrastructure does have a huge part to play. If you look at the ship canal, it made a huge difference in the cost of transported goods to Manchester.

“We now have an opportunity again, an opportunity to bring goods through Liverpool with a new deep water container port, but we also need the infrastructure that goes with that to connect. It really is unheard of, thinking about transport as a whole, not just road and rail but also about water.

“Passengers are an important part of that connectivity, but it takes a huge amount of time to transport freight from Liverpool to Hull, it’s more expensive to travel on rail than it is on road – that’s one of the reasons why the roads are busy. So for us, investing in that infrastructure is a key pillar.”

Jane Boardman of Deloitte was then asked what the public sector could deliver to the Northern powerhouse. “It isn’t going to be a primary driver of economic growth,” she said. “The public sector is there to provide a framework for the sector to drive that growth.”

She returned to the key theme of the debate – the importance of infrastructure – and noted that with so many improvements needing to be made, there was a need to narrow these down. “To identify these game-changers,” she said, “we really need to start a consultation process. Governance is important but we don’t want to get hung up on that.

“It’s finding out the role that business can play and the priorities that can really drive quicker and larger investment in the area.”

The panellists were then asked if Westminster could do more to progress the Northern powerhouse, and this drew a response from Clive Memmott. “Central Government needs to get off its backside and make some major decisions,” he said. “The Treasury needs to appraise billionpound projects, otherwise you will not get the return – especially when you have the Chinese always looking to invest.

“Devolution and infrastructure need to work together. We also need to deal with the key skills issues we’ve got.”

Joe Anderson then noted that it was an urgent priority to address the skills issue – “There is a desperate need to break the same old mould in how we approach schools” – before returning to the question of infrastructure. The Liverpool mayor argued that to compete with cities such as Shanghai, there must be greater connectivity between the Northern cities which, with a combined population of 15 million, can match their Chinese counterparts.

“That’s why Liverpool welcomes Manchester’s Airport City, because it’s important to the North as a whole,” he said. “With 74 per cent of consumed goods in the UK coming in from the South, we can get that into Liverpool.

“But that’s where it comes back to skills. We need people training in port logistics – and, if we don’t, we’ll fail in the unique opportunity being offered by the Liverpool port. It’s not all about transport, but if we don’t have the connectivity, we’ll fail.”

With skills now on the agenda, it was the turn of Koen Lamberts, representing the N8 group of universities. “Universities can be good points for regional innovation,” he said. “That is the concept the Northern powerhouse had encouraged within the group. It is an initiative that has tried to establish a common platform among the North for driving innovation and growth.

“We understand better than we did. We have to identify areas where we have to be active, you cannot do this is a diffuse manner. And it is a significant innovation itself where eight universities have got together to look at new technologies and how they can be used to drive the economy.”

The chairman then asked if differences still lurked beneath the surface of this apparent collaboration between Northern cities. “To me, the city brands are separate and I detect less animosity,” Clive Memmott said. “The more successful we are working together, the better it will work.”

So given all this collaboration, Mr Nimmo continued, was the way forward to speak with one voice? Jane Boardman said that while she agreed with the concept, currently what happens is that any decision is taken behind closed doors and everyone backs it. “There is no public disagreement around the priorities,” she said.

Neil Lees suggested that what was needed was a high-level plan for the North, setting out aspirations: “There is a need to have something which everybody can understand and communicate.”

The one panellist whose organisation already speaks with a collective voice, Koen Lamberts, then summed up. “Universities are fiercely competitive, students are competitive, what is needed is a common purpose,” he said. “We are all committed to benefit our region and that is what is necessary for the Northern powerhouse.”

Finally, it was left to a member of the audience to make a suggestion for clearing up the confusion that still surrounds not just what the Northern Powerhouse is but where it can be found: “Can we not at least have a northernpowerhouse.co.uk web address?”

Well, yes – and there is always that tram stop, too.

Rival perceptions raise fighting talk

So where does the Northern powerhouse go from here? It needs focus, but in which areas? This turned out to be the Forum topic that led to some verbal fisticuffs.

Rob Cotton of NCC Group unwittingly threw down the gauntlet with his suggestion that they should “forget devolution, that will happen on the way” and focus instead on sectors where the North could become worldbeating.

“Sector focus is integral to the Northern powerhouse,” he said. “We’ve got to think wider and grab the things we can become successful at. If we can harness more growth, that’s the Northern powerhouse, that’s going to stop a lot of people going down South.

“I couldn’t care less if I could get to Newcastle ten minutes or an hour earlier. I would appreciate it, but it doesn’t need to happen.”

This contribution rang the bell in Joe Anderson’s corner and he came out swinging, having evidently interpreted it as a criticism of the work that has taken place to date. “To suggest there is nothing going on is an absolute insult,” the Liverpool mayor said.

“I don’t accept the view that there is no focus, there clearly is. If I was as pessimistic as yourself, I wouldn’t have got up this morning.”

“I’m not pessimistic,” retorted Mr Cotton, a well-known Northern powerhouse supporter.

“I’ve taken an organisation that was completely broken and turned that into a world leader, so if that’s pessimistic thanks very much.” Mr Cotton also pointed out that he could have taken his company to London where recruitment might have been easier, but had chosen instead to stay in Manchester.

“If you thought I was insulting you, just wait until after the meeting,” was the final verbal punch thrown by Liverpool’s mayor, before Alasdair Nimmo from the chair decided it was perhaps best to call time on this section of the debate.