What does the north east want from the new government? Business leaders give their views

The Angel of the North against a bright, blue sky

What does the north east want from the new UK government?

How long have you got…..but to invoke the spirit of JFK, we should be asking not what the government can do for the north east but what the north east can do for the country.

I was at a really interesting business leaders function this morning organised by Tait Walker, which featured contributions from Ross Smith at the North East Chamber of Commerce, Bob Paton from Accenture/North East LEP, Liz Mayes from manufacturers’ organisation the EEF and Edward Twiddy from Atom Bank (and former CEO of North East LEP).

Throw in ex-Journal editor Brian Aitken as compere and the always no nonsense style of Tait Walker Managing Partner Andrew Moorby as summariser and you can guarantee a lively debate.

Liz Mayes from the EEF kicked off with a common sense plea for an early EU referendum and investment in skills as its priorities. Edward Tweedy followed up by highlighting the need for the region to put forward its agenda based around the fact we are leading the UK on competitiveness and productivity, and how this can drive growth across the service sector and throughout the country.

Ross Smith echoed Liz’s call in relation to Europe and (very rightly in my view) stressed that the government’s offer of devolution powers in return for elected mayors is the only show in town – I blogged after the election about why the government is in no mood to negotiate on this.

He also said we need to prioritise our agenda, be specific about what we want and sell a positive vision for the region. For me Edward’s most perceptive point is that we don’t have a transport problem within the region (not by UK national standards) but we have a huge connectivity problem linking the north east with the rest of the country. You can tell he has spent a lot of time in London – it allows a different and valuable perspective.

Bob Paton is passionate about SKILLS. Anyone who listens to Bob speak will understand why SKILLS is written in capitals. Bob’s plea to government to make apprenticeships simpler and easier to deliver got a lot of nods around the room, as did the later Q&A point backed by everyone about high speed broadband connectivity and universal 4G access wherever you are in the north east.

The Q&A debate was pretty lively, ranging from how we keep graduates, h0w we promote the region and varying views on what our priorities should be. Brian challenged the panel to list their top 3 issues in terms of government engagement, so here’s my list for what it’s worth. It’s deliberately more about what we need to do as a region than asking for handouts.

1. Set priorities and present solutions, not problems

We agree key priorities – making skills development and apprenticeships simpler, specific infrastructure investments and universal 4G sound like a good start to me – and provide workable solutions to government as to how we plan to deliver them and what we need government to do to help. By the way – everyone does this with one voice, so there is no confusion at Whitehall.

2. Change the north east narrative

New Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton has been pretty vocal about this and I agree with him – lets shout about our successes in exporting, productivity and the amazing advantages the region has to offer.

3. We need to engage with government, not fight it.

Anyone who thinks that the best way to get extra investment and create new opportunities with the government is by fighting it over the details of elected mayor schemes is living on another planet. The Conservative Party has been elected with a very clear mandate (in England at least) and through the Northern Powerhouse initiative has set wheels in motion that can deliver real benefits. Lets not waste the opportunity please.



PS – we’d better agree where the north east is for the purposes of this devolution debate. This was billed as a north east event but the focus (maybe inevitably given it was being held in Gateshead) was on Tyne and Wear, with plenty of nods to Northumberland and Durham. I think the Tees Valley was mentioned twice.

As a Gateshead lad who lives in Durham, supports Sunderland and works in the Tees Valley it doesn’t surprise me and to be honest the way the Tees Valley councils and LEP – Tees Valley Unlimited – are working together very successfully, I don’t seem them being part of any elected mayor for the whole region. Maybe that makes sense – as long as north and south of the region can collaborate when they need to.

What that means for regional organisations like the Chamber is an interesting debate for another day.