Business voice needed to get devo back on track

Has the government given up on devolution or can business get it back on track? Frank McKenna calls for action on the powerhouse and the engine in his latest Downtown blog.

Frank McKenna

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Where is the devolution agenda up to? That is a question that has been exercising the minds of business leaders at events I have attended or hosted since the turn of the year.

The Northern Powerhouse initiative that was launched with a huge fanfare by George Osborne six years ago is seen by some now as a busted brand whose best days are already behind it. After the initial flurry of excitement and investment, Osborne’s departure from his post as chancellor coupled with Brexit appears to not so much pushed the powerhouse down the agenda, but off it completely.

The powerhouse minister Jake Berry does not have a seat at the cabinet table. Osborne’s successor Philip Hammond seems to have as much interest in devolution as I have in ballet dancing.

In the Midlands, an ‘engine’ was established, with Birmingham at the core of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Conservative mayor Andy Street has certainly secured some significant investment wins for the region, and he can hardly be accused of having a low profile. Nonetheless, the greater powers and responsibilities he will have been trying to persuade Whitehall to give him have not been forthcoming.

Back in the north, the Liverpool/Manchester double-act of Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham has been a force for good. However, Leeds has been peddling a One Yorkshire governance model that appears to have little or no support in Westminster, whilst if the north-east follows form and elects a Labour mayor the candidate there, with due respect, seems like a bit of a muppet.

What does this mean for business? Firstly, there are now major question marks over the long-promised infrastructure investments for High Speed 2 and possibly northern rail too. The skills gap is getting wider not better and Brexit, should it happen, won’t help. More fiscal powers for mayors are not being seriously discussed and with the apparent continuation of austerity, how will Andy Street continue to finance a credible mayoral office if he can’t get a precept past his political opponents?

As I have been saying for some time now, it’s up to business to find its voice again on these key issues and start reminding the government that the private sector beyond the South-East matters.

The personalities at the top of government may have changed, but the facts haven’t. Whilst we should celebrate the fact that London is the richest region in northern Europe, the UK also ‘boasts’ the six poorest regions in northern Europe too. The imperative of rebalancing the economy has not changed. Unless the government has a cunning, alternative plan, devolution is the best way of delivering that. Let’s get some pressure on ministers to raise their heads above the Brexit quagmire and start to take the powerhouse and the engine seriously again.

Downtown in Business will be hosting a series of events across the country with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. Contact josh.sinclair@downtowninbusiness.com for further details.

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