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The North and Midlands – more in common than divides?

The North and Midlands – more in common than divides?

🕔29.Aug 2017

When Business Secretary Greg Clark announced that negotiations would start “immediately” on a second devolution deal for the West Midlands, it was taken as confirmation that Andy Street and the West Midlands were now the Government’s go-to people.

Then, as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling rowed back on commitments for electrification of rail routes in the north as well as the rebuild of Manchester’s Piccadilly Station and the West Midlands Mayor topped the Local Government Chronicle’s league table of ministerial meetings, it seemed further proof that George Osborne’s departure from Government and the election of Andy Street had re-shaped the lens through which Theresa May sees the political map north of the Watford Gap.

But, recent developments seemed to have re-galvanised political and business leaders in the north. It has given them a cause.

George Osborne, who manages to make time to chair the Northern Powerhouse Partnership alongside editorial duties at the London Evening Standard, hit out last week at the Prime Minister’s advisers in attempting to eradicate any mention of his political baby. He will have had Birmingham-born Nick Timothy especially in mind.

The former Chancellor helpfully suggested Mrs May should announce plans for a £7 billion high speed rail line between Liverpool and Hull at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

Mr Osborne’s latest musings, in the FT rather than the Standard, was followed by a summit attended by political and business leaders across the north staged by colleagues of the Chamberlain Files at Downtown in Business.

Frank McKenna, Chair and CEO of Downtown said:

When Downtown in Business decided to organise a Transport Summit involving business and political leaders from across the Northern Powerhouse a little over three weeks ago, we had an ambition to bring together key decision makers and private sector organisations who could make a genuine contribution to a campaign to get action.

Over 150 delegates attended our Leeds event…. The media coverage of the summit was immense, nationally and regionally. The discussion in the room was focused and positive.

Business voices from Hull, Newcastle, Yorkshire, and the Northwest were joined by political leaders from Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, the North East, Bradford, and Leeds in calling for a more consistent message from the North, in terms of what our ‘asks’ actually are.

The North wants investment to improve business and economic growth. We want to improve productivity. We want to recruit and retain talent. We want to make a positive contribution to the UK Plc balance sheet. It is a hand up, not a hand out that business is demanding for the North.

An agreed statement at the end of the summit, signed by political leaders from across the Powerhouse… called for a co-ordinated approach from the business and political community to government.

Following the summit, Transport Minister Chris Grayling… has agreed to meet business leaders to discuss these issues. That is great news, and I am optimistic that we can add weight to the message from our political leaders about the importance of this investment for the north.

Urban Communications, sister firm of Files publisher RJF Public Affairs, was there to observe the state of northern business and political debate.

Andy Burnham, elected on the same day as Andy Street, is the stand out leader in the north. Whilst Mayor of Greater Manchester, he is effectively positioning himself as the convenor of leaders across the North West and Yorkshire. Whilst careful to respect long time Manchester council leader and now his Deputy Mayor, Sir Richard Leese, Mr Burnham is clearly making the running.

Andy Burnham’s close friend Steve Rotherham is having a much more difficult time establishing his credentials in the Liverpool city region.

Meanwhile, there are differing views across Yorkshire on plans for devolution in the city regions based around Leeds and Sheffield, with alternative proposals for a pan-Yorkshire ‘coalition of the willing.’

Last week, Theresa May visited Tees Valley to support plans for a Mayoral Development Corporation. Earlier in the month, the Culture Secretary announced a £15 million Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund alongside established plans for a Great Exhibition of the North next year.

As a result of the summit, Mayor Burnham declared that a ‘Council of the North’ will be established to lobby the Government. He said:

Today’s unprecedented gathering of northern political and business leaders sends a clear message: the North is getting organised and ready to get its voice heard more loudly than ever before.

It is time now for the North to pool its political influence and show a real willingness to use it, like London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been doing in recent times.

Mr Burnham acknowledged the North had “struggled to speak with one clear voice” in the past but added:

If we get this right, a new ‘Council of the North’ could mark a real change to the politics of our country.

But Mr McKenna warned against a suggested ‘Council for the North’.

That may be something to consider down the line. However, what the business community was clear about yesterday is that we don’t want another talking shop. We want, and need, action.

A campaign for the north is required, with the many able private and public sector bodies coming together, pooling ideas and resources, agreeing on priorities, and then pressing the government to deliver those priorities.

For years, many of those active or commentating on politics in Birmingham and the West Midlands grew increasingly exasperated with the ability of Manchester and the north to seemingly organise themselves and lobby Westminster and Whitehall more effectively.

On the evidence of last week’s summit, that is not the case – at least in recent times. Even the business of agreeing an end of summit statement was far from seamless.

It is not clear how the Council would work and what role it would play in relation to the already established Transport for the North, which expects to be given statutory status by the end of this year.

The Northern Powerhouse already exists in the form of a Government “partnership” across the North of England and Wales as well as the think tank chaired by Mr Osborne.

Whilst Crossrail II in London and HS2 between the capital and Birmingham grab the headlines, some analysts suggest that the real issue for Northern cities – as for those in the Midlands – is skills.

Whilst sometimes a vaguely interesting spectator sport to compare the successes of Birmingham and Manchester – and surrounding regions – in securing favourable media coverage and Government generosity, the truth is that all areas beyond London face the common challenge of agreeing priorities, making their case and speaking with one voice.

As Mayor Burnham acknowledged at the Downtown summit, part of the challenge for provincial leaders is convincing HM Treasury that investment in regional projects, particularly infrastructure, will deliver a greater return than those in London and South East.

The capital and its surroundings are always going to win investment battles if simply based on Treasury economic models. The social divisions, economic inequalities and lack of progress in improving social mobility in the country – all laid bare in the last eighteen months – and an overheating south east region, need to be factored into political decision making alongside financial forecasts.

Conservative Mayor Street may be at the top of the Prime Minister’s regional speed dial list, but Labour Mayor Burnham is an experienced political operator who enjoys good relations with Mrs May after finding common cause on the Hillsborough disaster.

How Mayors Burnham and Street choose to work together will be interesting in the months ahead, as will how bodies at the Northern and Midlands levels develop.

Chamberlain Files understands that an Interim Chief Executive for the Midlands Engine will be announced this week.

Funding for transport and skills may be a cause of both co-operation and competition for Mayors and leaders in the North and Midlands.

Brexit should concentrate minds too. As Chamberlain Files reported earlier in the year, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made the case for repatriating powers from Brussels straight to the nations and English regions.

The Scottish and Welsh First Ministers met last week to start working together on ensuring the EU Withdrawal Bill does not result in a Whitehall “power grab.”

Tackling the big issues of transport, skills and housing – and securing necessary powers and resources from Government – and making the best of Brexit should not just unite the north, but all political and business leaders beyond the Westminster bubble and the square mile.

To paraphrase the late Yorkshire Jo Cox MP, the North and Midlands are far more united and have far more in common with each other than the things that divide them.

Main pic: Downtown in Business Transport Summit

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