Business North: passion will lead to action
A united business voice for the north will help drive the Northern Powerhouse agenda from debate to reality
There is no denying that the Northern Powerhouse has been a hotly debated subject among business and political leaders in the north of England ever since the chancellor first uttered those fateful words in Manchester in the spring of 2014. Yet the start of February saw a real milestone in its genesis.
At the launch of Business North, hosted by KPMG and backed by the CBI, more than one hundred senior business leaders from across the region came together to discuss, debate and drive forward their priorities for stimulating economic growth across the region.
The group seeks to provide ideas, challenge and support for the government’s Northern Powerhouse agenda. And after all the talk of the past two years, the launch of Business North was different; it felt different.
For the first time, I sensed a real tangible desire among businesses to simply go for it. To put an end to the rhetoric and kick-start the reality.
As the discussion flowed, some common themes emerged.
Firstly, the time really is now. The economics are weighted in our favour. Fundamentally, there are practical, well thought-out reasons as to why stimulating greater economic growth across the region is the right thing to do for the whole of the UK – not just the north. Our prosperity will undoubtedly lead to national prosperity.
Secondly, there is a degree of confusion, both locally and nationally, over what the Northern Powerhouse entails – and specifically, how the regional devolution agenda fits in.
For me, the Northern Powerhouse is about harnessing the collective potential of our core five or six cities – from Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, to Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle – and seeing them come together as one to become a powerful economic force that acts as a counterweight to London and the south east, and which competes toe-to-toe with other leading economies from across the globe.
Regional devolution undoubtedly is an enabler for this, as it will allow individual city regions to take greater control over their own financial affairs.
However, it is not the be all and end all of the Powerhouse concept, and it is crucial that we do not let the two become confused.
Finally, and most importantly, we must be bold. We must set ambitious targets, and then see them through.
It is somewhat curious that in contrast to the perception of northerners being sometimes too blunt and honest in their communication, for too long we, as a region, have been too quick to compromise and make do. This hasn’t served us well. Indeed, other global city leaders are not too proud to think big, and more importantly, to ask big. So why don’t we?
The stark reality is that whilst the north has many strengths, it is currently failing to achieve its full potential. Productivity is lower than the national average, its skills base is weaker, and growth over the past ten years has been slower than in every European Union country except Greece.
Strongly contributing to this weakness has been a legacy of underinvestment, particularly in the transport infrastructure between the major cities of the region.
If the Northern Powerhouse is to succeed, then key investments in skills and in our infrastructure must happen. And they must happen quickly.
I firmly believe that the north can be great again – and what was so heartening about the launch of Business North was that everybody who attended the inaugural meeting not only shared this belief, but was passionate about making it happen.
By working collaboratively and speaking with one voice, business will play a pivotal role in making sure the north is an economic powerhouse once more.