An almighty shot has been fired across the bows of Lord O’Neill of Gatley ahead of a major business conference on The Northern Powerhouse (TNP) next week.
Jim O’Neill as he’s better known up here is now a Treasury Minister on the back of writing a highly influential report identifying cities rather than regions as engines of growth.
He’s coming to Manchester next week to give a boost to the two year old project that’s beginning to attract critics. One is Jen Williams, the talented political correspondent of the Manchester Evening News. In a recent article she claimed NTP was just a slogan, if one cared to look at the record rather than the rhetoric of Lord O’Neill and his boss the Chancellor, George Osborne. She cited the flagrantly biased recent award of extra cash to southern councils while northern authorities like Lancashire made massive cuts with talk of the Red Rose council withering altogether. She went on to say that these cuts damaged attempts to solve deep seated social and poverty problems engrained in the North for so long. The NTP’s emphasis on building things was not enough. Finally there was the unbelievable closure of the government’s skills department in Sheffield with the loss of 250 jobs..
The attack clearly went home because Lord O’Neill didn’t wait to get to Manchester to hit back claiming employment was growing faster in the north than elsewhere, power was being devolved through elected mayors, Transport For the North would deliver connectivity improvements and good things could be expected from the Infrastructure Commission shortly.
But the criticism isn’t just from journalists. Jim McMahon was the leader of Oldham Council and tipped to run for elected mayor of Greater Manchester until he unwisely took the Westminster route by becoming MP for Oldham West. He has been closely involved in the devolution negotiations and recently told MPs of his deep unease over TNP. He feels it does not empower communities, a criticism felt by many who say all the deals have been stitched up by councillors and ministers with no public consultation. McMahon called for a national framework for devolution rather than the highly complex and differentiated pattern of powers that have been handed out across the North. The government call it responding to local factors. I call it a dog’s breakfast.
Next week’s UK Northern Powerhouse International conference aims to tell ministers what northern business leaders think has to be done to really rebalance the UK economy. There is a feeling that TNP is not yet scaled up to do this. I would argue this has been the flaw in the strategy of both the Coalition and Conservative governments. They broke up the large development agencies which were in the process of creating the Northern Way to really counter the powerful London economy and we have been struggling ever since with a patchwork of Local Enterprise Partnerships, Combined Authorities and Growth Funds.
There is also the haunting question “will it last?” When George Osborne ceases to be Chancellor will the London centric civil servants start to unravel the project with a weaker politician in charge? Regional policy has been notoriously at the whim of ministers. I asked Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese about this at a recent Downtown event. He replied that that was why Manchester was grabbing as much power as it could while the policy is intact. Wise man.