The North needs ‘Devo Met’!


The corridors of Westminster power have been shaken and stirred following the fallout from the Scottish devolution referendum campaign, with those in favour of independence losing the battle but, arguably, winning the war.

The ‘solemn vow’ from the three mainstream party political leaders that promised additional powers TO THE Scottish Parliament on a whole range of issues from welfare to tax will have to be delivered, and this has left Whitehall mandarins and (mostly) Tory MPs banging on about fair votes for the English and an even playing field.

The answer, they suggest, is an English Parliament. Quite frankly I can think of nothing worse. I have sleepless nights imagining the type of country my kids will grow up in with a cabinet made up of John Redwood type characters, ably supported by a rump of Nigel Farage –led UKIPers no doubt, in the unholiest of unholy alliances.

It is also incredible to me that those politicians that have happily gone through the voting lobbies to bludgeon through austerity budgets that have so clearly hit the north of England harder than the south can be whinging about ‘an even playing field’ now.

What London centric politicians, civil servants and commentators need to understand is that it is devolution beyond Westminster that is needed, not devolution within an archaic institution that is no longer fit for purpose.

If Scotland is to get Devo Max then we in the North need to demand Devo Met! The city regions of England north of the Watford gap have to be given the same powers, responsibilities and opportunities as our Scottish counterparts.

Labour is right to object to the Prime Ministers bid to rush through legislation that would create a new constitutional settlement that none of us have discussed, let alone signed up to. Nevertheless, the idea that we need a ‘constitutional convention’ to sort a new governance structure for the UK is highly uninspiring too – and unnecessary,

A whole range of senior figures, including Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis, have written extensively on city region led decentralisation that would bring together leading decision makers with business leaders to create a genuine ‘localism’ and Authorities that can deliver on what is important to their own regions economic growth and social agendas without going cap in hand to central government.

As Sir Howard Bernstein said at the Downtown Leeds event last week, it is beyond nonsensical that he has to get permission from a pen pusher in London in order to simply close a road!

Progressive politicians and business leaders should be arguing for a timetable to deliver city region and county region governance models. We need an action plan to deliver this – not another talking shop.

Change is now inevitable, but what type of change? The North of England needs to make sure Scotland’s gain does not lead to Northern pain, with a stitch up that would still see us governed and dominated by the Westminster elite! Downtown will be campaigning for Devo Met – I hope you join us.

Devolution for the North is not guaranteed

North Devolution

I have had a particularly interesting week, speaking at an event on the future of transport for the Institute of Directors and hosting a Downtown forum in Leeds with Sir Howard Bernstein and Tom Riordan on Wednesday, whilst keeping a close eye on the fascinating debate on the Independence Referendum in Scotland, the result of which is analysed elsewhere in this bulletin by my colleague Jim Hancock.

The assumption following a significant number of concessions to the Scots by Westminster’s top table during the course of the campaign is that England’s regions will be able to negotiate a new settlement that will see significant powers and responsibilities devolved, probably to the city region level, sooner rather than later.

But, as Leeds Chief Executive Riordan pointed out, the Mandarins in Whitehall will ‘be on manoeuvers’ in a bid to ensure that any such transfer of power is as diluted as much as they can get away with.

Bernstein told the Downtown audience that in Greater Manchester this year £22 Billion of public spending had taken place. He made a compelling and straightforward case as to why we would get a better bang for our buck if local politicians, decision makers and business leaders were able to decide how that resource should be applied, rather than those decisions being taken by London based civil servants who simply know cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds as places on a map. One of these faceless bureaucrats recently asked a fellow presenter of mine at City Talk radio station if Liverpool was in the North East – I kid you not.

Scotland’s ‘indy’ campaign means that the genie is out of the bottle as far as how resources are currently distributed, and where the power really lies in deciding how that cash should be spent; and clearly the North has started to get its political act together with a coordinated approach to transport infrastructure spend through the publication of the One North document. There is also a genuine lobbying effort taking place to wrest as much devolution from Westminster to the region’s as is possible from the core cities group.

Nonetheless, Riordan’s warning about Whitehall Mandarins needs to be heeded, as my visit to London last week starkly reminded me. The media, business leaders and most MP’s down there still believe that the North should be content to get the crumbs off ‘their’ table.

A third runway, Cross Rail, more investment in the London road network, an average spend per head of population that is around £15 more than is spent on the rest of us are benefits that will not be relinquished without a fight. The business community needs to join our political leaders in that fight.

Many of the challenges we face, not least skills shortages, connecting quickly and effectively with a wider customer base in our own region, and the business support and economic development agenda, would all be better tackled at the city region level. If the private sector doesn’t get behind those messages, the Mandarins who believe we still wear cloth caps and clogs will deny us the opportunity. Join the conversation, get involved. Downtown is providing you with the platform to do so with a series of conferences throughout the autumn, so there is no excuse!

For details of Downtown’s business conference’s please CLICK HERE.

One North

George Osborne

Another week, another major announcement by the chancellor about big investment into infrastructure projects in the North, as the cities of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool joined forces to launch the ‘One North’ document, which was duly supported by George Osborne.

Cynics suggest that this series of recent announcements is simply electioneering; a way of convincing northern voters that the Tories have not forgotten them. In reality there are few votes for the Conservatives in Liverpool or Manchester- though in Lancashire and Yorkshire several seats will be keenly contested at next year’s General Election.

In truth, post recession, all the mainstream political parties have woken up to the fact that a UK solely reliant on the success of its capital city is not a sensible long term economic strategy. The huge gap between the South East and the rest of the country has needed addressing for generations, and the planned investment in ambitious transport projects, improving links between northern cities, as well as the much debated HS2 project which provides greater capacity for the routes to and from London are good first steps.

However, it is still in the area of governance that the north can and must make more immediate progress.

HS2, HS3 and the other potential investments into the road network are medium to long term initiatives. Greater power to our region can happen now. Our political leaders, backed by the business community, should demand we get on with it.

Why HS2 matters now!


Despite the fact that the project is one of the most important infrastructure schemes ever proposed for the north of England, there remains a huge amount of apathy from business leaders to the much discussed and debated High Speed 2.

This is largely because the new fast tracks from London to the North are not likely to be laid anytime before 2026, with full completion not due until 2032. Add to that timescale the inevitable delays that seem to accompany every major British infrastructure project, and we’re more likely looking at 2035, by which time many of us will be eligible for a senior citizens rail card – if we’re still here at all.

However, this is to miss the point of how the North and its great cities and regions can market, promote and attract investment.

Speaking to several overseas visitors and potential investors over the past few weeks at the International Festival for Business in Liverpool, and it is interesting to note that they are vaguely curious about the past ten years; certainly interested about the next ten; but most quizzical about what strategies and plans are in place for the next twenty five years.

If you are representing a company that is looking to relocate or establish a major brand in a new city, then it is not unreasonable for you to want to be confident that your investment is being made in a place that has a sustainable, long term future.

This is why the winning of the argument about HS2 is so crucial. And then HS3 on the back of it, to better connect northern cities together.

Getting to London thirty minutes quicker may or may not be a killer HS2 argument for many, but HS3, the ability to then connect Manchester to Leeds on modern, high speed trains and tracks must surely win the approval of any serious business leader in the north.

Whilst London continues to plough hundreds of millions of pounds improving its infrastructure, and is squabbling not about ‘if’ a new airport but ‘where’, there is not a whisper of discontent from the Capitals chattering classes or the Westminster political fixers. Money spent in the south, it seems, is unquestionably well spent.

The nonsense spoken of in terms of the costs surrounding HS2 must be seen as what they are – an antiquated vision of a dilapidated, slow moving north, grateful to be kept afloat by the crumbs from an ever growing, indeed overflowing, South East table.

Of course the renaissance of our big cities in modern times, Leeds, Liverpool and particularly Manchester, has been remarkable. But for us to continue and indeed accelerate the progress of our region, then investment not only in rail, but on our road networks too, is absolutely essential.

HS2 and HS3 may not be here in your lifetime – but those international companies and investors want to be confident that it will be here at some point. And that is why HS2 is important now, and why we must fight enthusiastically for it to be delivered.

Leeds’ ambition deserves Westminster backing


The strategic economic plan recently produced by Leeds is evidence that innovative, entrepreneurial and deliverable policies can emerge from regional agencies – but equally demonstrates the frustration that Northern city leader’s face when trying to implement positive change.

An executive summary of the Leeds city region document can be read here and it is clearly an ambitious, realistic strategy that articulates the huge opportunities and potential of Leeds and its surrounding areas. It is a plan strengthened because of the broad support it has from an increasingly cohesive, co-ordinated public sector and a private sector that is keen to see economic growth accelerated.

In recent weeks there has been much talk about the growing North-South divide. To address that unhealthy chasm then, government should welcome and back ideas such as getting on with HS2, investing in major infrastructure improvements, building more housing and making Leeds an IT and digital centre of excellence. But more than this, Westminster needs to give the city region the tools to get on with the job.

Funding for transport projects, allowing Leeds to retain the receipts from the disposal of HCA assets across the city region, allowing the newly established Combined Authority to recover VAT and returning revenue funding to the Local Growth Fund are all reasonable asks that the government should agree.

Without these relatively minor changes at central government level, without a degree of decentralisation of finance, decision making powers and responsibilities, and without a recognition that Leeds knows what is best for Leeds, then this impressive plan will only be partially delivered – and that economic imbalance between North and South will get worse rather than better.