The Liberal Democrats must own the Northern Powerhouse
I was delighted to chair Liberal Reform’s panel discussion at Spring Conference with Wera Hobhouse MP, Laura Gordon (PPC for Sheffield Hallam) and Stephen Smith (Transport for the North). The debate explored the opportunities, threats and politics surrounding the Northern Powerhouse agenda and how the Liberal Democrats should take on the challenge of owning the agenda going forward.
The statistics speak for themselves: as a region, the North has an economic worth of around £304bn and would be the 10th largest economy in Europe if it were a single city. However, the region is grossly underperforming and whilst the initial objectives of the Northern Powerhouse agenda was to rebalance the UK economy, since Theresa May’s election as Prime Minister the Conservatives seemed to have cooled on this subject.
Elsewhere, Labour is nowhere. Calling the Northern Powerhouse a “toxic brand”, Labour’s devolution spokesperson Jim McMahon has offered very little on how the North can grow.
It was only last week that Ed Cox resigned as the Director of the IPPR North and stated that, “neither of the mainstream Westminster parties have properly grasped the critical importance of devolution in unlocking the nation’s potential and their own attempts to govern”.
It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are the only party with the know-how to deliver true economic growth and devolution to the North.
In Government, the Liberal Democrats were the architects of localism. Our fingerprints are all over the devolution deals that were struck with Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Tees Valley and it was Vince Cable who made business rates more localised.
At the end of the fringe, the challenge was set – quite literally by Baroness Pinnock who demanded that people start writing ideas down for a policy paper – the Liberal Democrats are clearly the party best placed to deliver a successful Northern Powerhouse, but they must find a radical way forward to win the doubters over.
Both Wera Hobhouse and Laura Gordon agreed that leading the Northern Powerhouse would build a platform for winning back seats in the North.
But how do we do it? Personally, I think nothing should be off the table. We need to look at how business rates are being used and invested, how universities and other education providers are training a business-relevant workforce for the region, how we are providing sustainable and accessible housing for people to live in, how our transport system is helping commuters and freight to drive economic activity, how our energy and water providers are ready to cope with the demands of growth, and how we can utilise automation and digital advancements to drive efficiency and create better work/life balances.
This blog appeared in Lib Dem Voice in March 2018.