Unlocking the North’s potential to lead the Nation to recovery

Roger Marsh OBE DL, Chair of the NP11 and Leeds Local Enterprise Partnership pictured at the NP11 Parliamentary Event at Westminster (February 2020)

When the Convention of the North with the NP11 gathered in Rotherham just over a year ago, no one could have foreseen the choppy waters that awaited us in 2020. The events of the last year, and the continued economic fall-out of dealing with COVID-19, have highlighted more than ever the importance of unlocking the North’s full potential as we look to play our part in the nation’s recovery.

The anniversary of the Convention has provided us with an opportunity to reflect on developments since that time, as well as to note those areas that need further attention.

In his keynote speech to the convention last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reaffirmed his commitment to devolution by outlining his government’s levelling-up agenda, and a commitment to the creation of a Northern Powerhouse Growth Body. Both of these initiatives still present a major opportunity for the North which, if delivered as we envision, would provide us with the political and economic levers to unlock the full potential of the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has paradoxically shifted this national focus on rebalancing the UK’s overcentralised economy while also re-emphasising the importance for the Government to work closely with places like the North to put in local solutions and provisions that will deliver meaningful devolution. The North has disproportionally been impacted by the pandemic, suffering an estimated 20.7% decline in GVA between 2019 and Q2 2020. Around two million of the region’s workforce remain on furlough. Despite these statistics, the North is well positioned to lead the nation’s recovery and bolster its prosperity over the coming years and decades, but in order to achieve this, the North needs more tools, resources and power to drive forward its potential in areas such as clean growth, trade and investment, and innovation.

The economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will provide a renewed focus on clean growth and renewable energy. A recent YouGov survey found that members of the public support Government action to simultaneously grow the economy and protect the environment, without one coming at an advantage over another. This will be a green recovery and one that the North, as an energy powerhouse, is well placed to take a lead on. Throughout the North, communities stand ready and willing to help propel the Government towards our national ambition of being carbon neutral by 2050. Reaching this target is not only environmentally important, but also economically vital to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. For example, a 50% reduction in carbon levels by 2032 would create in the region of 100,000 new jobs and add £2bn per annum to the Northern economy by 2050.

The North has a proud history in contributing to the energy needs of the nation and continues to do so today by generating over 40% of the UK’s electricity. In partnership with Government, we can secure this legacy by pioneering initiatives to cement our position as the primary zero-carbon energy provider for the UK. Targeted Government investment would enable the North to lead the transition to a net-zero-carbon economy, by investing in renewable energy, innovating in decarbonising industry, and building homes to the highest standards.

Our drive towards clean growth is not only built upon our ambitious targets and existing energy infrastructure, but is also made possible by our expertise in innovation. Historically, failures to adequately invest in Northern Research and Development have been partly responsible for the disparity in regional growth in the UK. Last year’s Convention of the North resolved to prioritise innovation investment by identifying opportunities to boost R&D spending, scale up innovation projects and provide a platform to share information between sectors, partners and universities. Rebalancing the economy is not a one-off event or initiative, it will need to be a sustained process over many years.

As the nation contemplates economic recovery in a post-COVID-19 world, we will be simultaneously embarking on a post-Brexit era. The North will be a crucial player in any future trade arrangements, but is currently being underutilised with exports accounting for only 24% of Northern Powerhouse GDP, compared to the UK average of 30%. Analysis from our Trade and Investment Proposition shows the potential for an additional £53bn – £61bn of GVA and 15,000 jobs per annum created or safeguarded through inward investment by 2030.

The Northern Powerhouse brand is already world-renowned for its economic strengths in high-value, high tech industries. As well as for being the home of some of the world’s leading sports clubs. In partnership with the Government, we can work to cultivate this brand and play to our strengths to significantly boost the nation’s trade & investment, which in turn, would create long-term opportunities to rebalance the nation’s economy.

One year ago, over 1,000 people from across our region’s cities, towns, and rural areas, came together in in the Magna Centre in Rotherham and committed to one overarching objective: powering up the North. The rescue measures that the Chancellor recently announced for the Winter Economy Plan are very welcome. However, for the longer term, building the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishing economic resilience, is a critical moment for the UK. We face either risking exacerbating existing geographic divides in productivity and output, at huge ongoing cost to the UK economy and communities; or the opportunity to build back better by levelling up.

As we look to rebuild our fragile economy from the COVID-19 fall out, it is imperative that the Government presses ahead with its levelling-up agenda to provide us with the economic and political instruments which would allow the North to reach its full potential. These powers would not only be beneficial to Northern families, communities, and businesses, but would simultaneously strengthen the entire nation.

Co-signed by Roger Marsh OBE DL, Chair of the NP11 and Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and Cllr Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council and Chair of the Convention of the North