On arrival in Manchester on a chilly Thursday morning last week I can honestly say I didn’t think leaving later that day I would have felt a part of something quite special.
Having attended a number of large conferences over the years, including Dubai’s City Scape in the boom years of the late noughties and the MIPIM conference in Cannes, I can’t remember the last time I felt so much positivity and alignment across an event. Of course, there were some sceptics present, but in general, most of the people I spoke with over the day shared my views. Which was the atmosphere or “Ombience” as a certain comedian from the south East would say was electric.
Following the announcement of the North Powerhouse as an initiative by the government, many questioned whether this was a true signal of intent to enable devolution to the north or just a great PR exercise to win public support. Tom Bloxham MBE, chairman of urban splash raised the question to the conference “Is this the biggest real attempt of devolution, in our lifetime?" Two things come to mind from this statement. Both of which relate to how to define “Real attempt”. Do you take the view that something similar may have been tried (and failed) in the past or do you take it as a challenge? A signal of intent to grab the bull by the horns and jump on the initiative started by the powers that be in the South.
John Prescott, speaking at the event, made it clear he has tried to implement similar initiatives on numerous occasions over the years, and for one reason or another, things never really got off the ground.
I personally think, whatever your views on the government’s agenda or reasons for putting the Northern Powerhouse ball in motion. We now have a chance to stand up and do something special, something that we can look back on and say “we did that!”
I had a meeting with a client in the North West a couple of weeks ago. In which an analogy was raised about Sir Alex Ferguson. Now, I being from a city at one end of the M62 I usually take any Sir Alex monologue with a pitch of salt, but in this instance, I feel it may be relevant. My client stated that even though many people hail Sir Alex as one of the greats, he never actually played for Man Utd. He was never on the end of a famous Beckham right footed cross, or toe-poked home a “Fergie time” special in the dying minute of a champion’s league final. He just put the plan in action and let his team do the work.
I feel there are some similarities here with what needs to be done in the North. Government have stated their intent, and it is now up to us to put the plan into action. There is no point in looking back in ten years’ time at an opportunity missed!
The North, in my opinion, is already a powerhouse, and this was only confirmed by the event last week. Many people stood at the podium and told us how strong the region is as an economy. Statements of, “If the North was a country in its own right it would be one of the top five largest and most powerful in Europe,” and “21st largest economy in the world,” only strengthen my initial thoughts.
I feel the needs in the North relate to two major factors, both of which are closely linked and they are investment and connectivity. I and many around me on day one of the conference were encouraged to see the regional leadership of the major cities across the north sharing the stage and supporting a shared goal. In this instance the minds of leadership seem to be connected and invested on the challenge in hand; working together for the good of the region.
The problems come with regards to the major long-term financial investment needed to enable large-scale change or improvement. The transport and infrastructure leadership from key businesses across the North sat down in the afternoon session and questioned the lack of investment in the region compared to its impact on the UK’s economy. Talk of further investment to our region's rail and road networks, as well as marine transport solutions, were all covered and solid cases were put in place to justify the need and future benefits for the region.
One point which was raised on a couple occasions and never really answered was the HS3 or Crossrail North debate.
Now this is something I have a view on. I don’t see why the Northern Powerhouse needs to be targeting stronger links with London to be considered a success. Surely we should be strengthening our own market and improving the links between the major cities of the North and their surroundings. This will only strengthen our offering as a realistic, and in many cases, preferred destination to the South East. We can already offer a skilled workforce, excellent education facilities and aviation links. Teamed with a lower cost of living and arguably a better work-life balance. How can the North not be attractive to local and international investment?
I truly believe that if the North focuses on building the North into the true powerhouse it could be, the additional investment needed to link in with London will not be needed. Instead, London will be pushing through plans to link in with the opportunities and economy we have created.
I left the Event on Thursday evening with a spring in my step and a fire in my belly. I hope and believe that the majority in attendance felt the same.
What to next is the key question? Is this something we are going to embrace and build upon, or will this be another project John Prescott will list amongst the others as a fail and a missed opportunity?