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10 things we learned from the UK Northern Powerhouse Conference

Words: Simon Wicks
Northern Powerhouse Conference

Last week saw a two-day UK Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester where city chiefs, politicians and business leaders set out the case to businesses for the North as a devolved region. One session – ‘The business of devolution’ – featured council chiefs from Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, along with property developer Tom Bloxham, in a discussion that touched on the key issues around devolution and economic regeneration for the North. Here are 10 things we learned from this discussion, in quotes.

1. The North is competing in a global, not a national, marketplace

“There’s more of a realisation that we are in this together in the North, partly in order to counterbalance the South and South-East, but particularly for me the growth that’s coming from Asia and developing economies where we cannot compete individually by ourselves anymore. We need connectivity but also plenty of other things to create the showcase for the North in the global context.” Ged Fitzgerald, chief executive of Liverpool City Council

“We’ve got to position ourselves not in the UK but globally. We’ve got to address how we can remain successful as we see greater influence being exercised by China and Asia. What are our distinctive assets? How do we internationalise our business base? This is about how we make ourselves more competitive, deepening and widening our trading base, rebalancing the UK economy.” Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council

2. Better transport connections between Northern cities are required to underpin the expansion of employment market and economic growth

“Transport is absolutely essential. In the absence of better connectivity the Northern Powerhouse would have all its objectives ended. It wouldn’t exist at all.” Sir Howard Bernstein

“Google, they want access to high-skilled, vibrant employees which could live in any bit of the North and work in any other bit”

“[In order to attract a business like] Google, they want access to high-skilled, vibrant employees which could live in any bit of the North and work in any other bit. We are all used to working at a different geographic level where we recognise that investment in one bit of our region might benefit another bit. The economy doesn’t necessarily work to local authority boundaries and the job of attracting wealth and jobs requires greater collaboration than you find in other parts of Europe.” Pat Ritchie, chief executive of Newcastle City Council

3. Economic, political and cultural collaboration between cities has to be a given for the Northern Powerhouse to be a sustainable proposition

Future North diagram

“The thing for us [in the north of the North] is being able to collaborate with other cities to counterbalance a quite powerful Scotland to the north. There are some things we will use that devolution for collectively at a northern level – such as presenting the North as somewhere with international competitiveness that offers long-term careers to its young people in the same way that London does. It’s not just local authorities that need to shape this. It’s fundamentally important that the business community are part of building a Northern Powerhouse around these key areas.” Pat Ritchie, Newcastle


“Decisions like Crossrail happen by default in London and the South-East. We have suffered by comparison for many decades – partly because we haven’t been able to organise ourselves and partly because the needs of London have been greater. But the levelling of the playing field that’s on offer at the moment is something that we absolutely have got to grasp. If we don’t we will continue to lag behind.” Sir Howard Bernstein, Manchester

4. An element of strategic planning will be necessary for the Northern Powerhouse to work

“The current system doesn’t integrate thinking about the economy with transport and housing. At that strategic level you can do that. Make those decisions align with each other and in a democratic way. We can take more integrated decisions that cannot happen under the current system, which is broken.” Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council

“The current system doesn’t integrate thinking about the economy with transport and housing”

“I used to work for a regional development agency and went through regional spatial strategies. There’s something for me here about being more fleet of foot than that – getting these things to join up and work around the way economies work. We need to think about housing policy and housing investment and investment in economic communities.” Pat Ritchie, Newcastle

“We have to rethink the way in which we plan for employment and housing if we are to be able to maintain the growth levels anticipating and driving for.” Sir Howard Bernstein, Manchester

5. Devolution will enable authorities to adapt national policies to local needs

Northern Powerhouse Conference

“There’s a tendency for national housing programmes to be driven by acute housing shortages in London and the South-East. We need a more flexible approach to investment in local projects that takes a longer-term view.” Pat Ritchie, Newcastle

“Stop agonising over housing and devolve it. The need for housing growth is supported and the solution is designed at a national level, but every housing market is local and it’s proving very difficult to get the rate of house building that we want to […] It shouldn’t be that difficult to take a national support product and shave the edges off to suit local circumstances […] We told the chancellor what we offer you is bigger, better future growth with devolution than without it.” John Mothersole, chief executive of Sheffield City Council

6. Investment in research and higher education are necessary to turn the North into a hotbed of technical expertise and retain graduates - who can then become the drivers of enterprise

“We need more more education and business funding for the North. Today just 6 per cent of research and higher education funding goes to the North. This needs to coincide with business funding.” Sir Howard Bernstein, Manchester

“Start-up business growth comes from attracting and retaining graduates in cities, with strong housing offers and environments where you want to stay”

“Give us real levers over skills. Shape skills investment to our strengths [...] We are probably more than likely to get more business born from graduates staying in the cities to start businesses. That growth comes from attracting and retaining people in cities, with strong housing offers and environments where you want to stay and start up businesses.” Pat Ritchie, Newcastle

7. London’s affordability crisis is an opportunity for the North – and a strong North is good for the nation

“A lot of growth in Newcastle and the North-East is in small and medium-sized digitised businesses coming from people coming back to the cities of the North. These are people deciding they didn’t want to pay even the price of rent in London.” Pat Ritchie, Newcastle

“This is a national requirement and a national priority, that we have more than one engine of national growth. We are seeing all the outcomes that are associated with a massive, overheated London economy. Housing authorities in London are acquiring land In Peterborough in order to provide the houses to support the development and growth of London. That’s not a sustainable proposition over the next decade. We have to look after the way we drive growth if we are to meet the nation’s productivity challenge over the next decade.” Sir Howard Bernstein, Manchester

8. Businesses feel staying in the EU will be better for the North than leaving it

John Humphrys

When asked by moderator John Humphrys if they had already made up their mind about the EU referendum, around three-quarters of the audience raised their hands. When asked if they intended to vote to stay in Europe, more than three-quarters of these raised their hands.

“We have to look after the way we drive growth if we are to meet the nation’s productivity challenge”

9. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the North

“The point about the Northern Powerhouse at the moment is that it’s a project, not a plan […] The project needs to nail itself to the mast and say ‘This simply has to happen’. We sometimes expect to see every step of the work mapped out and it can’t and it won’t be – it’s a massive door that’s been opened to the North. The question isn’t ‘Is this just political?’. Maybe it is. But for once the political is in our favour. If we don’t do something then we have wasted an opportunity.” John Mothersole, Sheffield

“If we don’t do something then we have wasted an opportunity”

“We’ve got this vast opportunity across the board. The North is an affordable place to live with fantastic quality of life. We’ve got 31 universities. Until this debate people have tended to talk about the North in negative terms. But what’s happening is there’s been a massive renaissance of our cities." Tom Riordan, Leeds

10. MPs should tour Northern cities while the Palace of Westminster is closed for refurbishment

“Parliament should come here and spend six months in each of the Northern cities and use the facilities here and see what a great place it is, the North.” [Loud applause] Tom Bloxham, chairman of Urban Splash, property developer specialising in affordable and shared housing for first-time buyers