The second UK Northern Powerhouse Conference and Exhibition, at Manchester Central, began with an apology. Organisers admitted this year’s event, from February 21-22, did not reflect the gender balance of the North; just one in ten of the speakers were women.
Plenty of other work also still needs to be done if the Northern Powerhouse is to be a success. Conference chairman, Lord Kerslake, said it was a ‘marathon not a sprint’ and he was confident that having survived the immense political upheaval of the last year that the Northern Powerhouse is ‘here to stay’. The North, he said, with a population of 15 million, one million businesses, seven airports and over 20 universities has real ability to make in-roads on London and the South East.
More than 2,000 delegates also heard how investing in education and skills is vital to the long-term success of the Northern Powerhouse. During a debate on ‘competiveness and productivity’, it was emphasised that the skills employers require are changing rapidly. Delegates were told that 65 percent of children entering primary school will work in new job types that don’t currently exist.
But what’s happening on the ground? A constant question throughout the conference was, aside from the talk, has anything been achieved?
The Northern Powerhouse was first launched as an idea by then Chancellor, George Osborne, in June 2014. The Government’s updated Northern Powerhouse Strategy took shape, last November, as part of new Chancellor, Philip Hammond’s, Autumn Statement. It set out the Government’s plans - under the leadership of Theresa May - for delivering a vision for the North, including improving connectivity and working with local areas to raise education and skills levels.
The Prime Minister followed this up with the unveiling of her Industrial Strategy, launched in the North West, at the end of January. Her post Brexit plans included focusing again on the Northern Powerhouse; with £556m earmarked to help create jobs, support businesses and encourage growth. A Government consultation is now running until April, asking for private and public sector leaders’ views on what more can be done to make the vision for a strong Northern Powerhouse a reality.
A recent study by the think tank IPPR North warned of ‘chronic underinvestment’ in northern infrastructure projects. It found more than half of the UK’s total spending on transport networks is invested in London, with just 20 percent in the North. Indeed, few delegates raised their hands when conference moderator, the BBC R4 Today presenter, John Humphrys, asked if they were optimistic about a positive Brexit deal. Conference attendees also heard from Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield Council chiefs talking about lecturers and students turning down positions over Brexit concerns.
But aside from the uncertainty of negotiating our exit from Europe, there are reasons for hope and to have faith in what can be achieved by the North working together. Sir Howard Bernstein, who is standing down as chief executive at Manchester council, in a rallying cry to conference, said: “The Northern Powerhouse is not a Government initiative. It’s ours. It’s for us in the North to drive it.”
There were plenty of examples to demonstrate this. Manchester Airport unveiled new images at the conference of its £1billion transformation programme. David Brown, the CEO of Transport for the North, said he expected his organisation to become a statutory body – with the greater powers that could bring - later this year. Keith Morgan, chief executive of the British Business Bank, said the North already had more ‘high growth’ companies than London. And, talking about how the powerhouse would be delivered and financed, he said his bank was launching a £400m Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund.
So what’s next? Judith Blake, Leeds’ first ever female council leader, told conference that she thought the ‘Northern Powerhouse genie is out of the bottle’. She explained that never before have councils in the North worked so closely together. Only time will tell, but the early signs are encouraging.