IAIN WRIGHT: North East must be at the heart of Northern Powerhouse

Many people reading this will have heard of the Northern Powerhouse. I should imagine that considerably fewer people will be able to pinpoint precisely what it means and how it impacts upon their lives. On Monday, I attended an event at Hardwick Hall, Sedgefield, to consider what impact the Northern Powerhouse has on areas like Hartlepool and the wider North East.

The Northern Powerhouse is an initiative mentioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, a lot. At its heart, it is designed to ensure that rebalancing of the UK economy takes place, ensuring that activity, prosperity and job growth is not concentrated on London and the South East, but is spread across the country.

Putting aside party politics, the concept of a Northern Powerhouse is something I would passionately support. I’m rather proud of the fact that the North powered the Industrial Revolution and spread economic activity across the globe. The North really was the “Workshop of the World”. However, the story of the past 40 or 50 years has been relative decline caused by deindustrialization and a growing concentration of economic power centred around London. I want to work hard and would support anything which helped to reverse that economic decline.

In many ways, the North, and the North East has a lot to shout about in economic and business terms. We in the North East are the only region to have a positive trade surplus. The region is seeing the fastest economic growth. We have world-class industries in terms of car-making, chemicals and the process industries, tech, subsea engineering and oil and gas fabrication. Firms in Hartlepool help provide the excellence and the value to many of these sectors. These industries, although perhaps not employing as many people as their counterparts did 40 years ago, still provide substantial and well-paid skills. We also have excellent universities and colleges in the region.

However, the North East faces enormous challenges too. Unemployment remains far too high, stopping people and their families fulfil their potential. Skills levels are patchy – in some areas of the economy, the North East boasts the highest and most productive anywhere in the country, but if we are to compete in a modern, knowledge-based global economy, skills levels need to improve. In the 21st century, high skills are essentially a passport, allowing people to enjoy a meaningful, well-paid and rewarding career. Unfortunately, many people in the North East are using that passport to travel away from the region, believing that they only have a good career away from the North East. The level of business activity and start-ups is only a fraction of what it is like in the South East.

Although I support the concept of a Northern Powerhouse, I have two main concerns with it, concerns which were raised at the event on Monday.

First, is that the Northern Powerhouse is so vague, without any tangible or firm actions, to be virtually meaningless. It may be early days, but the first tests – that of the closure of SSI in Redcar and the general crisis in the steel industry affecting much of the North – found the Government and the Northern Powerhouse wanting. The second big concern is that the Northern Powerhouse can be shorthand for Manchester. I love Manchester – especially in the week that The Stone Roses release their first new single for 21 years – but I don’t want the city to concentrate economic power.

I also don’t want the Northern Powerhouse to be an M62 corridor, which could incorporate Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull but exclude the North East, to the detriment of the region’s growth and employment prospects.

I hope the Northern Powerhouse is a success, but it needs to be much more meaningful, ensure investment flows to the areas and that the North East is at the heart of any economic development.