What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
I am sure it means different things to different people. For me, it should be about creating a region which can genuinely compete on a global basis. This starts with better collaboration across the Northern Powerhouse cities, to get to a point where they selflessly promote the Northern Powerhouse region and work in the interests of the region as a whole, rather than working in silos.
Then it is about nurturing world-class business in the North, and critically reflecting on whether we want a Northern Powerhouse which cedes key activities to London, or whether we genuinely want a region which can stand on its own two feet and compete globally. The finance sector is a great example here – most decision making is ceded to London, whilst the North has in some cases shifted to a role in fulfilment and service delivery, call centres being an example. That role isn’t something which is permanent, in fact, it is threatened by advances in technology. It is therefore important to support regional businesses so that they can be properly anchored in the North, are served from within the region, make their strategic decisions in the region, and have the North as their primary reference point.
Five years have passed since the phrase 'Northern Powerhouse' was first coined. Has enough happened since then?
There have been some pretty significant distractions in that time, general elections, Brexit, and now Coronavirus. So there is still much to do and the Conservatives' pledge to 'level-up' the UK provides a useful platform from which to build. Pledges of investment and North-shoring to certain cities is one thing, but transport is likely to be the game-changer. East-West connectivity has been lacking for too long. It is critical that the North seizes the Prime Minister's commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, and builds unstoppable momentum to make this a reality.
How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?
If they empower the North and deliver regional greater autonomy to the NPH then they are an opportunity. To his credit, Andy Burnham seems able to cut through bureaucracy to make decisions which benefit Greater Manchester and build the momentum of the region. Metro mayors could be a real benefit to the NPH if they work together – that collaboration will be key, as will the quality of the candidates who take on these critical roles.
What must the government do to re-energise the Northern Powerhouse?
I think the challenge is partly summed up by the phrasing of the question. The North was the birthplace of the industrial revolution not because it waited for direction from Westminster, but because it was a hotbed of innovation and self-driven activity, transforming the economic landscape.
If the North is waiting for the government to act, then the North will always be in the pockets of Westminster. If the NPH is to become something truly meaningful, then it can't wait for Westminster's approval, It needs to be driven by a greater cause. A genuine Northern Powerhouse is more likely to come from a groundswell within the North itself, where individual regions shed their local bias in favour of something bigger and more enduring; where the region commits support to allow local businesses grow and thrive; and, critically, where businesses remain in the region as they scale up – this needs investment in infrastructure and investment in a strong regional finance sector to support them.
What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?
Connectivity – this will start to break down the geographical barriers which presently separate the Northern Powerhouse cities.
Is there enough collaboration between towns and cities across the North?
There is more to do. Historically, there has always been the temptation to adopt a parochial approach, region by region, which conflicts with efforts to galvanise the Northern Powerhouse. The NP11, led by Roger Marsh, is an initiative which seems well-grounded, with cross-region representation and a unified voice at its heart.
How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?
Here at B-North, we are building a UK regional Bank for SMEs which is based in the North of England. We have already benefited from the support and investment of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and a number of individuals, many of whom are based in the North. Most banks' reference point for their financing and lending decisions is London, and that is generally not good for the UK regions. B-North is based in Manchester, and our strategy is forged from genuine insight in the UK regions. The North is our key reference point, we are courting ongoing investment to see us through formal launch and into profitability - I would be genuinely delighted if the future investors in B-North were people or institutions who shared our genuine passion for the North and for supporting UK SMEs. A strong Northern Powerhouse would surely help us to retain control and autonomy in the North. In return, this would help us to genuinely support the beating heart of the UK economy with a bank, built for the UK's SMEs, headquartered right here in the Northern Powerhouse itself.