Special report: Rebalancing the UK economy – turning a slogan into action
ACTIONS speak louder than words. Business leaders on both sides of the Pennines say the Northern Powerhouse must turn rhetoric into reality or risk losing its credibility.
Former Chancellor George Osborne, one of the chief architects of the concept, has declared that the Powerhouse “isn’t just a slogan.”
Speaking recently Osborne added: “The big goal here is to try turn around something that blighted our country for 100 years, which is the North/South divide, and it can’t be done overnight.”
However, business leaders on both sides of the Pennines believe it is now time to push the agenda forward and get projects and plans moving.
A new survey also has also highlighted the gap that exists between the Northern Powerhouse concept and businesses believing it can deliver for them.
The poll, carried out by TheBusinessDesk with Eversheds, found that most business leaders quizzed understood and supported the Powerhouse aims.
But only 38% of those who took part in the survey expect their business to benefit from the Northern Powerhouse agenda as it stands. And 33% didn’t expect to see any benefit, with 29% stating they didn’t know.
Charlie Cornish is chief executive of Manchester Airports Group (MAG) and is also involved with the new Northern Powerhouse Partnership – a think tank bringing together Northern business leaders and politicians, which is chaired by Osborne. He says simply: “We have to move the agenda.
“Most people would buy into the aims of the Northern Powerhouse. What is important as time goes on is that we are able to translate that high level vision into a set of tangible plans that people can understand.
“That’s the bridge we have to cross. We have to go away from the vision, the rhetoric, into hard deliverables.”
He adds: “If the concept doesn’t translate into better trade, better infrastructure, that brand will be tainted.
“It’s important the North and Westminster actually get the Northern Powerhouse moving forward and get projects off the ground.”
Warren Marshall, group planning director at Peel Ports Group, agrees. He says: “It’s not the first time the North has come together. There used to be the ‘Northern Way’ which fizzled away when Labour lost power.
“That said I think the North is starting to come together a lot better than it used to. The brand, the momentum behind the Northern Powerhouse, has certainly got all the civic leaders talking to each other.
“For our part we are collaborating with our Northern port competitors on the east coast of the country. We have come together to work with our competitors on a common agenda, which is to fight for a better North.
“We need to focus on deliverables and accelerate. It’s what we can deliver. Otherwise it will lose its credibility if nothing really happens of any substance.”
Tom Bridgford, partner at Eversheds in Manchester, echoes some of the findings of TheBusinessDesk survey. He says: “A lot of clients say it’s a great concept, It needs to be more than just a talking shop, it needs to have some tangible deliverables and quickly or it will fizzle out.”
The view is the same east of the Pennines. Guy Parker, senior policy adviser at the CBI, also believes the business community is now looking for more from the Powerhouse. And he says the government has to play its part in that needed delivery.
He says: “I feel the biggest challenge for the Northern Powerhouse is maintaining the momentum in increasingly difficult economic times, ensuring that we actually get the investment that will make a real impact in the long-term.
“There’s been huge goodwill and from the business community in the North a real appetite to be involved in shaping what the Northern Powerhouse could be. But that goodwill will only last as long as the business community also sees commitment from government.”
Gerald Jennings, president of Leeds Chamber of Commerce, sees another challenge ahead for the Powerhouse project. He says that small businesses have yet to be engaged with the concept, despite all the talk around it.
He adds: “When we talk to our members they don’t really understand what this Northern Powerhouse thing is, then you get into devolution. That just confuses them even more.
“There’s a sense of, ‘I’m going to carry on doing what I do the best I can, with all the challenges I’ve have got and if this Northern Powerhouse arrives and devolution comes, fine, but it’s not really going to affect what I’m doing.”
Jennings goes on: “There’s a real danger if we don’t engage across the whole business community that we will leave it to the bigger businesses to dictate to the rest of us what’s going on.”
Guy Parker says the issues of real importance to his members are business support for exporters, increasing the level of skills across the North and improving transport links to make it easier to get from Manchester to Leeds and beyond.
“That’s what our members care about,” he says. “If the Northern Powerhouse is a vehicle to deliver that, they’ll get on board with it.”
Craig Burrow, regional director of property group Bruntwood, goes on: “The Northern Powerhouse needs to define itself in order to get that full engagement from the business community. Is it a badge or a movement, what is it?”
Cornish adds: “It’s a long-term plan but there has to be a push to get investment quicker. Any economist in the world will tell you infrastructure investment is the key to unlocking economic development.”
He describes the length of time infrastructure projects such as HS2 and HS3 have been on the table as “ludicrous.”
And he goes on: “One of the challenges for the North is to actually get Westminster to free that decision making up, free the funding up.
“We have to have a strategic vision and belief that investment will bring economic development.”
However there remains that growing belief that the pace has to be picked up.
Luke Raikes is Head of Transport for think tank IPPR North. He says: “The Northern Powerhouse, if it is sustained by the new government, which is very important, will hopefully reap dividends.”
However, echoing the former Chancellor he stresses that here are no quick fixes: “It will take years and years to see some measureable difference in the Northern economy, it is a long-term task.
“The great value of the Northern Powerhouse is how it enables many aspects of the North to work together.”