Power. Performance. Potential. Leeds Economic Conference

Millennium Square Leeds 

Yesterday I attended an International Economic Conference at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds which had been organized by Leeds and Partners to celebrate the start of the Tour de France. The guest of honour was Nick Clegg MP, the deputy prime minister.

In his speech the deputy prime minister said
"It’s time for us to put aside outdated local rivalries. As we’ve seen with the Local Enterprise Partnerships in Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, united we’re stronger."
Noting that "Northern cities like Leeds aren’t just competing with other locations in the south, east or west of England" but also have to rank against global cities like Frankfurt, Lyon, Bangalore and Chengdu for incoming investment, the deputy prime minister announced the Northern Futures Project. Clegg described it as
"an open call to our local leaders, businesses and experts in housing, transport, planning, science and education across the north of England to answer this fundamental question: how do we build on the strengths in the north to create an economic core in the heart of the region that can compete with the biggest cities and regions in the world?"
As Clegg had noted "Leeds, along with Sheffield and Manchester, can and should form part of a northern hub, driving economic investment and growth across the north of England." Those 3 cities are all within 45 miles of one another.
"Together, they can offer investors access to flexible, highly-skilled workforces, world-class universities with cutting-edge research expertise, a strong industrial base and clusters of innovative businesses in high-growth sectors such as precision manufacturing, creative and professional services, healthcare, retail and green industries."
It will be remembered that I had argued for something like a northern hub in "Creating a Northern Counterweight to London is good for the Nation" 5 Apr 2014 and "Nesta in Manchester" 3 Jan 2013.

Unfortunately Clegg's words seemed to fall very much on deaf ears because the leaders of Leeds and Wakefield City Councils and the Chief Executive and York who had gathered to discuss KPMG's Magnetic Cities report competed in an orgy of what I can only describe as Manchester bashing. "I wasn't going to mention Manchester" said one, "They're only better at self-promotion" said another. "We've hot a bigger economy £55 billion as opposed to £51 million" chimed a third to the general acclamation of the crowd.

I was tempted to observe that for so long as that sort of thinking prevails no part of our region - by which I mean the almost continuous "H" shaped conurbation along the M62, M1 and M6 corridors from Wetherby and Rotherham to the Irish Sea - and certainly not Leeds will ever amount to much. However, I had already made myself unpopular by two pointed interventions.

In the first I pointed out to Clegg that if our region is to prosper it needs the sort of autonomy enjoyed by Greater London with its larger than life Mayor or better still the local decision making autonomy enjoyed by Scotland and Wales. "Oh" replied a chastened Clegg "I'm disappointed that you don't think that we've given you enough. That's what the city deals are all about." If I'd had a chance to reply I would have said: "big deal."

In my second intervention I suggested to the KPMG team and civic leaders that if we want to emulate San Francisco or even Tel Aviv and Bangalore we need the concentration of angels, VCs and entrepreneurs that have subsisted around Silicon Valley for the last 30 years. The only place in the UK that had anything like that was Silicon Roundabout and Tech City in London. They were not created by central or local government and it was no good moaning about the disparity in economic activity between North and South, "What we needed" I suggested "was a silicon ginnel". I had to explain that a "ginnel" was an alley.

So here is my recipe for a successful North.
(1)   Stop fighting the wars of the roses which were really medieval power struggles between different branches of the royal family and their acolytes and nothing to do with the inhabitants of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
(2)   Let's recognize the reality that we already have a metropolis that stretches from Wetherby to the Wirral with branches taking in Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield in Yorkshire and Warrington to Preston in the North West and coordinate its governance. Metropolises do not need to share the same local authority - look at Southern California - or indeed be in the same state for Greater New York embraces New Jersey and Connecticut as well as southern New York or even the same country as is shown by Windsor and Detroit or Basle, Mulhouse and Freiburg but they do have to think of themselves and function as one metropolis.
(3) Infrastructure investment decisions have to be taken locally and not centrally. We need something like crossrail now and we should not have to wait until goodness knows when for the Treasury to fund HS3.
(4) We need local forums for the settlement of our disputes and should not have to traipse down to the Rolls Building in London. IPEC which is now part of the Chancery Division should sit in Leeds and Manchester and probably also Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and Newcastle as well as London. Not only will that save the costs but it should also  facilitate the development of expertise in the local bars and law firms. The same should happen in other specialist practice areas. When the Unified Patent Court launches there should be a local division in Manchester or Leeds.
(5) We need not replicate everything on both sides of the Pennines. Manchester has an international airport. Leeds does not need to rival it.
(6) We should adopt as our own and celebrate the treasures of the region and not knock or ignore them. Leeds trumpets itself as the artistic capital of the North because it has Northern Ballet (which incidentally started and flowered in Manchester and it is scandalous that Manchester ever let it go) quite oblivious of the fact that Manchester has the Bridgewater Hall, several of the world's greatest orchestras in the world, The Lowry, the Royal Exchange, the Museum of Science and Industry and the City Gallery with its unique collection of Manchester impressionists. Liverpool also has a fine orchestra and magnificent museums as does Bradford, Wakefield and Preston. No creative spirit will be tempted out of London by any single one of those attractions but the combined total of our region's artistic treasures is almost irresistible.

The one thing that surprised me most about yesterday's economic conference in Leeds is that nobody mentioned the International Festival of Business which has been taking place just over an hour away in Liverpool since the beginning of June (see "Liverpool International Festival for Business" 26 April 2014) and has attracted the Prime Minister and political and business leaders from around the world. The only time that Liverpool was mentioned was when one of the speakers said that he would prefer to meet folk in London 220 miles away than Liverpool 70 miles away because "London was easier to get to," I could not believe my ears as I visit both cities regularly and there is no question that Liverpool is much nearer however one travels. That's the sort of provincial negativity that has to stop if the North is to become the industrial powerhouse that Clegg, Osborne and Miliband, who are all Northern MPs, say they want to create in this region.

Further Reading
For a bibliography on Northern regeneration and devolution, see my article Northern Futures Summit 8 Nov 2014 IP Yorkshire