David Skelton is Director of Renewal and was born and brought up in Consett, County Durham. Paul Goldsmith is a life sciences entrepreneur based in Northumberland.
For decades, politicians have mouthed platitudes about the ‘North-South divide’. From Lord Hailsham donning a cloth cap to Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘walk in the Teeside wilderness’, politicians have loved talking about turning round the Northern economy. After a library’s worth of words and scores of ‘initiatives’ since 1945, the North-South divide remains.
George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse represents the most substantial drive to narrow the divide and cities such as Manchester are taking the initiative and gaining new powers to help deliver growth. The North East, on the other hand, despite being the region most in need of revival, is dragging its heels and risks being left behind again. This can not be allowed to happen. The North East needs to put aside rivalries, embrace the opportunities provided by the Northern Powerhouse, and speak as one voice with a single elected Mayor.
England has one standout area uncoupled from the rest, geographically, economically and politically isolated. The North East has the worst economic output in England. It still has legacy issues resulting from the closure of the heavy industry that the region relied upon for so long, with black spots of worklessness and high unemployment. A quarter of the working age population are economically inactive, a fifth of children live in workless households and earnings for those in employment are the lowest in the country. It does, however, have reasons for optimism too, with real strengths in exports, chemicals and manufacturing. But the region simply cannot afford to be left behind again.
All parties should support the long-term vision of rebalancing the economy and halting the brain drain to the south. The Northern Powerhouse marks the first time that a government has developed a serious approach to the long-term economic renewal of the region since deindustrialisation. But much of what’s happened to date has meant that the Northern Powerhouse has been a Pennine Powerhouse, partially because of the extraordinary amount of ambition shown by civic leaders in places such as Manchester. Newcastle is 100 miles north of Leeds and 150 miles from Manchester and has bigger economic problems than the rest of the North. It cannot afford to be lost between a Scotland gaining greater powers driven by nationalism and a resurgent economy on either side of the Pennines.
Put frankly, the three million people of the North East have been ignored by politicians of all parties for too long. It is the sheer scale of the population in this well-demarcated region, similar to Wales, bigger than Northern Ireland (1.8 millon) and over half that of Scotland (5.3 million) that is notable.
The challenge for the Government is to how to put rocket boosters behind the North Eastern economy to ensure that we truly have a Northern Powerhouse. The language of One Nation used by the Prime Minister since re-election is hugely welcome, and shows great humanity. The litmus test should be if it is a success in re-energising economies like the North East’s.
But the North Eastern economy is going to be turned around by North Easterners, not by Whitehall. It needs to replicate the type of vision and imagination shown by leaders such as Howard Bernstein in Manchester, and needs the civic leadership to be unapologetically pro-business, with a mission to provide the infrastructure and the pro-growth environment that the region badly needs.
So far, this leadership from the region hasn’t always been obvious. The North East was the only region not mentioned in the last Budget statement, and areas such as the North West and the Midlands are powering ahead with their versions of devolution. The local Local Enterprise Partnership was without a Chief Executive for over a year and now only has a temporary one. It is a cruel write-off of three million people for them to be left in such a political vacuum.
The North East must put aside its differences and coalesce around a single elected Mayor. Such a figure would benefit from the authority of having one of the biggest mandates in the UK and would be a strong voice, batting for the North East both nationally and internationally. An elected Mayor must also be elected with a strong idea of the powers that he or she wants to devolve from Whitehall – ideally powers to boost the region’s infrastructure, which makes travelling between towns and cities so difficult, and the introduction of major tax incentives to make the region highly competitive and gain powers on welfare, housing and skills.
The SNP are now a major force in British politics. And with the sheer number of MPs they have in Parliament, they’re sure to provide a strong voice for Scotland in Parliament and are likely to achieve fiscal changes and alterations to Air Passenger Duty that will harm the North East if it’s caught napping. The DUP and SDLP will also be making the case for Northern Ireland. Other English regions will soon have elected Mayors speaking for them. That’s why it’s so important for the North East, a region more vulnerable than others to economic shocks, to have representation at the top table and a strong and influential figure – backed by a big democratic mandate.
The next few years will be crucial to the North East and its economy. It can no longer afford to be hushed out by the noise of Scottish nationalism to the North and a resurgent Leeds and Manchester to the South. The ‘brain drain’ from the region needs to end and ambition for the area that fuelled and engineered the British Empire should be revived. To do this, it needs considerable investment in infrastructure, major incentives to encourage business and ambitious measures to turn around areas still blighted by deindustrialisation.
The North East has immense potential – its natural resources, its people and its engineering and industrial legacy all mean that it can be an economic trailblazer in the future just as it was in the past. The North East’s ability to renew economically is in its own hands, and its politicians and business leaders should be ready to show the ambition to grab it. Only a directly elected Mayor for the whole region can provide the leadership that the region needs.