Devolution – let’s get it sorted!

Lancashire’s political leaders have been warned that failure to secure a devolution deal with the government risks causing serious harm to its economic fortunes.

Business leaders who came together for a ‘Resilience to Recovery’ conference – the climax of Lancashire Business Week 2021 – spelled out the dangers of not breaking the deadlock and sealing a deal.

They warned Lancashire could be left behind as the rest of the North moved forward and forged new relationships with central government, and the funding that delivered.

Mo Isap, the founder and chief executive of IN4 Group, said: “Let’s stop being polite to the politicians and absolutely unequivocally as business people say, ‘get your fingers out’ and get this sorted.”

He compared Rochdale in Greater Manchester to Burnley and said: “Look at where Rochdale is at the moment because of the combined authority.

“The investment that is coming in; its advanced productivity centre; the investment because of the GM Investment Strategy, a £1.2bn proposition into government; a mayoral leadership driving on sills and jobs.”

He said that without a deal the county would be “grateful for the crumbs off the table” when it should have the confidence to deal directly with government and spell out “what Lancashire can deliver for UK Plc.”

Mo also called for more collaboration between Greater Manchester and Liverpool City regions and the wider North. He told the online conference: “We need to set ourselves out in a complementary fashion.”

And he added: “People from Singapore and Japan don’t see the difference between Skelmersdale and Rossendale.”

The county has been grappling with the devolution deal for many years now. Henri Murison, director of The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said there was a real danger of Lancashire being left behind.

He said: “There is a plan for Lancashire but is there anyone who can actually take the responsibility for delivering it. Currently the answer, I’m afraid, is no.”

He said the government’s White Paper on levelling-up, which will be published in the New Year, would make it clear the direction of travel was towards unitary authorities and the elected mayor model.

And he pointed to Cumbria and North Yorkshire, more rural areas than Lancashire, that were on the road to devolution, adding that meant: “Lancashire is the only place in the North not ready to do a deal with the government.”

Henri compared Tees Valley in the North East, which has an elected mayor, to east Lancashire, saying the latter was at “a competitive disadvantage” when it came to attracting investment and making long term economic decisions.

He also urged businesses to take a lead in making the case for education to be put higher on the agenda when it came to investment in the county.

Debbie Francis, who chairs Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) said she believed the chances of the county coming together under a mayoral leadership were “slim”.

But she added there should still be a way to speak to central government if a county deal couldn’t be reached.

She said: “When it comes to the political landscape, we need to make a decision about what we are going to look like.” And she added that business needed to keep expressing its views.

Debbie said: “If we don’t come together with a mayor, we need to get behind our authorities and work with them to make sure that as a county we get what we need.”

Debbie also spoke of the need for Lancashire to stop seeing itself as competitor to Lancashire and Liverpool. She said instead there needed to be more collaboration.

And she added: “We can’t keep moaning about what we want all the time. It is what we have got to offer as well, and we have got a lot to offer.”

Melissa Conlon, commercial director at AMRC North West, also stressed the importance of collaboration, including the need for more to take place inside the county.

She said that the pandemic had exposed structural weaknesses in the county and added: “As a collective we need to look at this.”

Melissa told the audience: “If we are not going to get it from government, we need to start helping ourselves.

“We need to start looking what we can do internally and that comes from collaboration.

“How do we raise skills in the county? How do we encourage people to stay and to relocate here?

“The National Cyber Force coming to Samlesbury is an opportunity. Where are the skills going to come for that? With collaboration we can solve some of these things ourselves.”

Earlier in the conference Melissa spoke of the ambition behind the new AMRC North West, which is also based in Samlesbury.

She said the aim was to emulate the AMRC in Sheffield, which has helped create 10,000 manufacturing jobs and attracted major players, including planemaker Boeing to the city region.

Chris Boardman, BAE Systems group managing director Air, also told the conference about the impact the future Tempest air combat platform would have in Lancashire and its work in the county to create the ‘factory of the future’.

There were also panel discussions highlighting ‘Lancashire in Action’ which examined the county’s response to the pandemic and the changes it had brought to businesses.

It featured Andrew Leeming of Boost Business Lancashire. Stacey Turner, of CG Professional, Sante Group’s Paul Nugent and Charles MacMillan of Beever and Struthers.

The event was brought to its close with a discussion on raising the county’s profile. ‘Shouting not Whispering’ featured Mike Stevens of the BBC, Kate Ingram from Burnley Council and Debbie Francis.

Watch this event in full here.

Headline sponsor of Lancashire Business Week is CG Professional.

Lancashire Business Week is also backed by patrons, Beever and Struthers, Bigtank, Burnley.co.uk, Burnley College, Cotton Court, IN4 Group, Lancashire Skills Hub, Nugent Sante and Zigaflow.

Venue patron is AMRC, and Lexus Preston is a supporter. Social media for Lancashire Business Week is powered by Boost Business Lancashire.