Outlook 2019: Devolution essential for regions to be an ‘effective player in this economy’

The development, or lack thereof, of devolution for regions across the UK was a hot topic during TheBusinessDesk.com’s Outlook 2019 seminars.

The seminars, hosted in conjunction with DLA Piper, looked at the performance of city regions and issues including connectivity, inward investment and skills.

Sue Grindrod, chief executive of Royal Albert Dock

During the Liverpool seminar, Sue Grindrod, chief executive of Royal Albert Dock, said that Brexit and the surrounding uncertainty is proving to be a “distraction” to the progress of getting more powers devolved.

She said: “I think we are forgetting about those agendas that we all bought into, that devolution is great, the Northern Powerhouse is great. But Brexit has got in the way and there is no appetite for progress until that’s settled.”

Colin Sinclair, CEO of Knowledge Quarter Liverpool, believes that the local politicians are in a position to “add value” to Liverpool as the “real problem is with Government.”

Sinclair explained: “The two sides which are running national politics now seem to have no ability to reach any kind of pragmatic compromise on anything. The problem is down in Westminster.”

Chris Brown, director of Marketing Liverpool

Chris Brown, director of Marketing Liverpool, echoed these comments and said that devolution will only work once it becomes a “fiscal devolution.”

He added: “Fundamentally we are just using existing money and there is no new money from government, because everything is so centralised. I call it the ‘English Problem’ because Scotland, Wales and ireland can crack on and do a lot of things England can’t do. So if we ask the Government for more responsibility, we can then prove we can handle these extra resources. So I think fiscal devolution will be the breakthrough.”

During the Sheffield seminar, panellists debated the ongoing issues involving a One Yorkshire devolution deal alongside a separate deal for the Sheffield City Region.

John Mothersole, CEO of Sheffield City Council

John Mothersole, CEO of Sheffield City Council, said: “This country mercifully doesn’t do revolution. So a devolution is definitely a step in the right direction. But it is only a step. There is a strong correlation in just about every other country that localised decision making is more successful than centralised decision making.

“The combined authorities and the LEPS are a step in the right direction because if the government are allocating money to different places, they need to know who they are allocating it to.

“Saying that, Sheffield City Region has taken a big step forward, it has a mayor and is only one of four city regions with a mayor. It puts us in the differentiator category. But we can go further and there is an easy step to take and that is to take a devolution deal.”

Clare Gregory, partner at the Sheffield office of DLA Piper

Clare Gregory, partner at the Sheffield office of DLA Piper, added: “If certain power and decision-making comes to a particular area rather than at a centralized government then you have a much better focus in terms of dealing with the individual challenges the UK’s cities face.”

Vivienne Clements, director at Henry Boot Developments, also said: “We need to grasp what we’ve got. While the government is entirely focused on Brexit, it isn’t going to have the energy to try and look at new solutions and proposals for a devolution deal. So grasp what we have and work towards that bigger picture.

“This is a long-term solution, and the danger for everyone in the South Yorkshire region is that this will pass us by and the government gets completely disenchanted with any discussions in our region.”

These sentiments were also echoed in the Leeds seminar, with Allison Page of DLA Piper explaining that the Leeds City Region must “secure some form of devolution” in order to be an “effective player in this economy.”

Allison Page, Leeds office managing partner of DLA Piper

Page said: “We need to change the message coming out of Yorkshire and let our colleagues at Westminster know that we are going to work with them and not be so critical of them. We need to get our central government on side with us and sometimes I think we are not quite as good as we could be at getting that message across.”

Mark Phillips, CFO of Zenith, added: “It makes sense for people who understand their regions to have more power and money to invest. But with this comes responsibility, and if a lot of money is being pumped into the local regions we need to make sure that people are accountable.”

Moving onto the Manchester seminar, panellists discussed that despite the city and Greater Manchester being such a huge area, devolution is still “a work in progress.”

Peter Jackson, managing director of Seddon

Richard Jeffrey, director of business growth at The Growth Company, said: “There is a lot more that could be done around transport. If you look at the powers that Transport for Greater Manchester has compared to Transport for London, there is a vast difference.”

Peter Jackson, managing director of Seddon, did highlight that there is “stability in the local government” and that local authorities in Greater Manchester do “have the will to collaborate with businesses to make things happen at a local level.”

This view of a stronger localised government was also touched on in the Birmingham seminar as the West Midlands also has a Metro Mayor. However,  Ninder Johal, CEO at Nachural Records/Events and board member of the West Midlands Growth Company, did question what these “devolved powers look like in three to five years.”

Ninder Johal, CEO at Nachural Records/Events and board member of the West Midlands Growth Company

When commenting on the West Midlands role going forward, he questioned: “We will will be in charge of our own funding and skills? Will we be able to decide on when we spend money on transport and infrastructure?” In terms of West Midlands establishing itself on a global level, Johal stressed the importance of these devolved powers and the power given to the Metro Mayer.

Further coverage  of topics discussed throughout the Outlook 2019 series is to follow.

Click here to see the Leeds gallery

Click here to see the Sheffield gallery

Click here to see the Birmingham gallery

Click here to see the Manchester gallery

Click here to see the Liverpool gallery