Thank you so much for being here, and huge thanks to all of you who have contributed ideas, put in proposals, made suggestions online, in all the various workshops that we’ve held over the last 3 months, as part of this Northern Futures initiative.
I think it’s important to start at the outset to stress that Northern Futures is really a method rather than a specific suggestion. It’s a method by which we, in the north of England, can garner the best ideas about what we think is right for the north of England.
It’s all part and parcel, of a wish on my part, and clearly on yours as well, to wean ourselves off this tradition that we somehow wait for answers to be generated by civil servants in Whitehall, that somehow the blueprint for the future of the north of England will be cooked up in offices in Whitehall.
This is all about cooking up our own ideas for our own areas for the communities that we love and live in here in the north of England, and I’m immensely excited that the new way of generating those ideas, shaking the tree to get the best ideas, has been as productive as it has, and will result in the pitches and comments and sessions which we are holding today. So thank you very much for all the ideas you have contributed, and all the ideas that will be discussed during the course of today.
It comes, of course, at a time of great movement, of great momentum towards decentralisation and devolution within the United Kingdom more generally, and I think if we can grab the opportunity, set aside our political differences, set aside our traditional geographical rivalries, and really speak with renewed coherence and consensus about what we want for the north of England, I think we really are starting to push at an open door.
The reason why I think the door is now open for a rebirth of greater autonomy in the north of England, and indeed greater autonomy and decentralisation across the United Kingdom, I think is really for three big reasons: firstly, the nature of the economic crash in 2008. I don’t think we’d be sitting here now discussing some of the ambitious proposals about how we can decentralise power to the north of England if we were not grappling with the aftershocks of what happened in 2008.
Because what happened in 2008 wasn’t just a traditional blip on an economist’s graph; this wasn’t any old recession. This was a complete implosion, a seizure in the way in which we run our economy. I think what everyone’s realised in the wake of the 2008 crash was that it wasn’t just a failure to regulate the banks, it wasn’t just became of imbalances in the subprime market in the United States. It was also the consequences of a very – a profoundly unbalanced way in which the British economy was being organised: overreliance on one square mile in the City of London to the exclusion of the 100,000 square miles across the United Kingdom.
What is driving the debate is a realisation we can never let this happen again. We can never put so many eggs in one basket. We can never rely on only one part of the country, sectorally or geographically. We have to spread our bets. We have to ensure that all parts of the country can stand on their own two feet, and no longer rely simply on the tax revenues being generated in the City of London being transported northwards to provide what turns out to be an illusion of economic stability through subsidies to the north. So I think that’s the first reason: 2008 and the nature of the crash, and the lessons we’re learning from it.
Secondly, I think the debate about devolution in the United Kingdom, and obviously the drama of the referendum in Scotland on 18 September has had a dramatic effect. Dramatic. I’ve noticed this in my own constituency in Sheffield; out and about knocking on people’s doors and talking to folk, you hear people say, ‘Well, hang on a minute. If we’re talking now about devolving lots of powers from London to Edinburgh, and London to Cardiff, and to Northern Ireland, well, what about the north of England?’
It has just lifted a lid on a wider appetite for everybody to take more powers for themselves, which is a great thing. As someone who leads a party that’s been going on and on about decentralisation and devolution when it was a seriously unfashionable backwater of political discussion, it’s great to see that it is now on the tip of everybody’s tongues.
And the third reason I think we’re pushing on an open door is, as I alluded to just now, that there has been a real shift in the political debate. What used to be a debate amongst rather, sort of, pointy headed folk who would spend a lot of time having arcane discussions about how you decentralise this tax, or reorganise that bit of local government, it’s now actually become something which enjoys cross‑party support. And that’s wonderful; it’s a great – it’s a fantastic thing now to see all the major parties, all talking the language of devolution across the United Kingdom, and decentralisation from our excessively centralised Whitehall state to other parts of England.
So the opportunity is massive. This event is an important, I think, stepping stone in ensuring that we grab that opportunity. A lot of the themes will be echoed in the sessions we’re having later, whether it’s how we increase skills – the skills base in the north of England to make sure that our youngsters have got the right skills to occupy the right jobs, enhance investment into the north of England, create the sum of our parts, our great cities: Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and so on.
We’re all terrifically proud of our separate cities, but we’ve got to remember that we’re actually collectively competing with Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Bangalore. The sheer scale of what’s happening in Bangalore is just dizzying, and that could be repeated over and over and over again by a whole bunch of cities whose names we probably aren’t even familiar with in China alone.
And that’s why we’ve got to understand that what’s good for Leeds is good for Sheffield, what’s good for Sheffield is good for Manchester, what’s good for Manchester is good for Liverpool. I know our traditional football rivalries discourage us from thinking in those terms, but we really, really do, because we are working together in the north of England, when we want to compete with other great mega‑cities across the world.
I’ve been talking about this in the media this morning: one of the themes that’s come up a lot is the need to do more to fill in the gaps in our frankly inadequate transport infrastructure – road, rail – and I’ve been saying all morning the fact that we’ve got so many thousands of people across the north of England still boarding these so-called Pacer trains, there’s nothing pacey about them at all. They are cattle trucks on wheels and they would be deemed completely unacceptable in other parts of the country and other parts of the world.
So it’s an important set of themes that are emerging. I want to thank you again. The opportunity is massive. I’m delighted there’s this emerging consensus across the parts of the north and across parties, building on what’s happened in recent years, the City Deals, the growth deals, the localisation of business rates. We’re moving in the right direction, we want to move further.