Anyone watching the Insider Northern Powerhouse Conference 2014 may, for a second have thought they’d tuned in to a live stream of the latest episode of Neighbours At War. The gloves were off when it came to discussing the need for an elected mayor as part of calls for more devolved powers in the north of England.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and leader of Wakefield Council Peter Box were at loggerheads when it came to voicing their opinion over the need for an elected mayoral role as part of the grand plan to boost the north’s clout. Chief executive of Manchester City Council, Sir Howard Bernstein, agreed with Mayor Anderson, explaining that the appointment of elected mayors across major northern cities would be crucial in ensuring democratic accountability.
But while Cllr Peter Box was loosely accused of being a ‘dinosaur’ after suggesting that the people in Yorkshire wanted a cabinet and not a leader, if there were any detractors of the overarching Northern Powerhouse idea in the room, they sure stayed quiet.
Other panelists among the line-up included secretary to the RSA City Growth Commission, Charlotte Alldritt, and chief executive of Leeds City Council, Tom Riordan. Mr Riordan echoed Ms Alldritt’s sentiment for northern cities to recognise their strengths and work together in collaboration. Despite the initial spat, the first panel concluded by confirming that the Northern Powerhouse was indeed a reality and is gaining momentum.
On to the second panel and while the political heavyweights drilled down the detail of how the system could work, the business and academic communities had one message for them: Get on with it! It was during a second panel discussion focused on how science and innovation will help to drive the regional economy that consensus was much easier to reach. The message was clear: in order for the North to compete globally, politicians need to stop squabbling, decide on a governance structure, and put growth first.
Juergen Maier, CEO of tech giant Siemens, stressed the need for common governance to avoid an impossible situation – that you can’t have one region with a Mayoral system and another with a cabinet. He claimed that without a universal model, businesses would find it difficult to work across the regions due to the logistical nightmare that would ensue.
Collaboration was the word of the day, with Philip Cox, former director at the Department for Communities and Local Government and current chair of Cheshire and Warrington LEP, empathising with Whitehall’s desire to keep everything under one roof. When you’re held accountable to parliament, he argued, it’s easier to know you’ve got your hands on all the reins. However, he concluded that local groups are much better placed to make decisions on local issues and that by releasing funding and empowering the regions, valuable workers and enterprises could be retained instead of being lured to the talent-hungry capital. Bringing decision making to regions would serve the democratic process and promote accountability; as Rowena Burns, Chief Executive of Manchester Science Parks, said, she would rather make a case to the local authority over Whitehall.
But the panel were keen to stress that the support for greater powers in the regions is not a demand for autonomy that would break England up into separate city areas. It is a push for localism which would then see collaborating authorities creating a new, thriving regional economy.
With the release of planning and investment powers to local government, the northern regions are poised to break out of London’s shadow and craft a greater economic balance between the regions of the United Kingdom. However, how far will they take it and can they put their squabbles aside for collective benefits? Will they recognise that this isn’t just the Northern Powerhouse as a rival to London, but the North versus the world?