Debbie Francis at the LEP: On the right lines
Debbie Francis fears the government’s flagship levelling up agenda is in danger of going off the rails and she isn’t afraid to let everyone know that.
The new chair of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) puts her case with passion. It’s a conversation she’d also like to be having with the Prime Minister.
“I’m seeing people quoted saying that London needs levelling up,” she says. “People are losing sight of what levelling up is supposed to be, somewhere along the line we’ve lost what it was.”
That may not be the view among councils looking to grab some of the cash in the government’s £4.8bn levelling up pot, to help solve some of the specific problems on their doorsteps. But Debbie believes everyone needs to be reminded of the bigger picture, including Boris Johnson, who she’d love to “have a chat” with.
She says: “The levelling up debate started because of the big argument about how much more was being spent on transport in the south, compared to the spend in the north. It was about that infrastructure spend.”
Debbie, who has a background of successful senior roles in the rail sector, believes better transport connectivity is central to improving the fortunes of Lancashire and the wider North of England.
She says: “There’s a whole heap of reasons why transport investment is, to a great extent, the answer to levelling up. If you put that investment in, you open up choices. Businesses will grow, people can get to skilled jobs.”
It’s not about winners and losers, it is about creating a strategy and prioritising activities for the whole area
Businesses in Lancashire would also benefit greatly by being able to transport their goods and access supply chains more efficiently, she adds.
She goes on: “Levelling up wasn’t about everyone bidding for funds and spending money all over the country. You might solve individual problems; a deprived area of a town might see new houses being build and of course areas are going to bid for cash. Why wouldn’t they?
“But it won’t have the same longer-term impact of spending that money on an overarching infrastructure strategy, creating our own growth from that and consequently levelling ourselves up. Some people say I shouldn’t be talking like that, but sorry, that’s what we have to do.
“We need them to give us our own fair share of infrastructure investment. We need to do the big things.”
Born and brought up in Litherland, one of the small towns strung along the Mersey north of Liverpool, it’s clear that Debbie is used to telling it like it is.
It is an approach that has seen her carve out a distinguished business career that included management roles at Enterprise plc, the former support services giant that was based in Farington.
A qualified accountant, she was involved in several its joint ventures on Ministry of Defence contracts, as well as playing a role in various acquisitions. “In my first two years we bought nine companies,” she recalls.
But it is in the rail industry that she really came to the fore, firstly with Network Rail as London North Western route finance and commercial director and latterly as managing director of Direct Rail Services.
In her Network Rail role, she was responsible for operating and running its flagship stations: Euston, Liverpool Lime Street, Manchester Piccadilly and Birmingham New Street.
At the helm of Direct Rail Services, she oversaw the growth of the government owned £80m turnover rail freight business, operating across the UK with some 450 staff. Its core work involves the movement of spent nuclear fuel.
As the first female MD operating at that level in the rail freight sector, Debbie received an OBE for services to women in the rail industry. She remains an advocate for rail and a champion for female empowerment.
Describing herself as a “train enthusiast”, she is happy to share her knowledge of rail rolling stock citing the class 66 and 88 locos operated by her old business.
She says: “It is a fascinating industry. I have a theory that rail is very much like the NHS, very British and a great part of our history.
“That’s why everyone in the country thinks they can run the NHS or the railways better than anyone else, it’s in our DNA.”
Debbie didn’t make her way to the boardroom by the usual route. She left secondary school at the age of 16, with three O levels. Her time at school included leading a classroom walkout in support of a teacher, which made local headlines. “My family were mortified,” she recalls.
She started working life on the government’s Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP), filing papers in the Inland Revenue office at Bootle and went to night school for five years before studying at the then Liverpool Polytechnic. She also took work in bars and as an “Avon lady”.
Lookng back, she says: “I’m really privileged today. I look at my life and my friends and all the opportunities I get, and I just think it’s fantastic.”
Debbie certainly lives life to the full. She has taken part in the Clipper yacht race on the Australia to China leg, has climbed various peaks, including Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc and her adventures have also taken her to Antarctica.
She was appointed chairman of the LEP at the end of June and has spent much of her time since then meeting people across the county. She lives near Warrington and has a 20-year-old son at Lancaster University. Debbie says that it was her growing interest in the Northern Powerhouse and levelling up agendas that attracted her to the role.
An overhaul of LEPs is on the way, with the government currently consulting on their future. It turned to local councils to allocate the funding pots it announced in this year’s Budget, including the levelling up fund. In the past that channelling of such cash had been a key LEP job.
The Local Industrial Strategies that LEPs played a lead role in creating also appear to have been consigned to the waste paper bin.
However, according to recent reports the government communities secretary Robert Jenrick believes LEPs still have a role to play as a strong voice for their business communities. Debbie awaits the review findings with interest. She says: “I wouldn’t have got involved if I didn’t think the LEP was still valid.
“Without a doubt local authorities know their areas better than anyone else. In terms of looking at strategy and strategic priorities, the overarching growth, it needs more than just a local authority view. You need someone to look at the bigger agenda.
“A partnership between business and local government is a really good thing. It’s not about winners and losers, it is about creating a strategy and prioritising activities for the whole area. Without LEPs I don’t know who would do that.”
She says of the change in allocating funds: “I hope it is not going to change the transformational impact local funding can have. It shouldn’t matter as long as it is still being used to advance that overarching strategy.”
When it comes to the thorny issue of devolution, and Lancashire’s inability to strike an agreement that could lead to a deal, she is equally forthright.
“It doesn’t look like we are going to get a mayor, but it also looks like you don’t need to have one to get devolution.
“I understand how it works when you have a combined authority, I’m les clear how it will work when you haven’t and whether you will get as much value for money.
“The one thing combined authorities have done is take a wider strategic view. For them to work each council has to be given some level of responsibility. It is going to be interesting.”
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