Powerhouse debate: Time to increase the power

Is Lancashire failing to seize the opportunities the Northern Powerhouse brings and what can we do to make sure we have a seat at the table? Those were the questions we asked our panel, drawn from inside and outside Lancashire and brought together with Downtown in Business at the Hallmark Hotel in Leyland.

Does the idea of the Northern Powerhouse resonate in Lancashire?

FM: The county sees itself very much a part of the north and as a place which is extremely well connected to the big cities of Manchester and Liverpool. So the Powerhouse agenda provides us with plenty of opportunity here. Whether or not we’ve been capable of taking advantage of those opportunities is the question, and my short answer is ‘no, we haven’t’.

While everybody else is trying to create bigger governmental units to cope with the new agendas, the global challenges and opportunities that we have, some people in Lancashire are actually trying to go in the opposite direction and shrink the county’s governance structures.

Lancashire has a great opportunity with the Northern Powerhouse; its business community certainly feels that there’s a good opportunity. The politicians, I feel, in some parts of the world here, have continued to be parochial and are not fully understanding or appreciating those opportunities.

MG: The Northern Powerhouse is very much about linking up the cities to offer that counterbalance to the power of London. Yes, Lancashire has a key part to play within that moving forward, but we are not seizing and making the most of it currently.

There is far more that we can do moving forwards. We can have a key role, building on our strengths such as advanced manufacturing, and the aerospace sector. We are world leaders in many regards but sometimes we don’t communicate that message and that’s a Lancashire trait. Our neighbours in Manchester or Yorkshire are far clearer about shouting about the good work that they do.

PRESENT:

  • Richard Slater, Lancashire Business View (chair)
  • Coun Michael Green, Lancashire County Council
  • Coun John Farrell, Manchester City Council, and Newington Communications
  • Elliot Harrison-Holt, Recycling Lives
  • Dave Jones, VEKA Group
  • Steve Kuncewicz, BLM Law
  • Andrew McIntyre, VSI Executive Education
  • Frank McKenna, Downtown in Business

We need to work stronger together on the Lancashire footprint and that Lancashire voice. We can get tied up in the parochialisms of our own districts. Lancashire is a very varied county and it has tremendous strengths but we don’t make enough of those.

We should have our individual areas but equally there needs to be a Lancashire message and that needs to be loud and clear in terms of attracting inward investment and being a big player within the Northern Powerhouse and nationally and internationally.

DJ: We’ve been based in Burnley for 33 years. Burnley’s been very good at marketing itself through the Bondholders initiative. If we could apply that across Lancashire, it would be so much more powerful. Greater Manchesters mayor has done a fantastic job. We’ve not really taken them, but the opportunities are still there for Lancashire

JF: The process in Manchester has been going on for 20-25 years. It started out with people wanting to be around the table working together, and that doesn’t always happen in local government. They were prepared to work together; they were good at it. They’ve done it for a long time and everyone is more or less on the same page.

There have been problems with devolution deals in other areas where they’ve tried to bolt on something that has taken 20 years to do in Greater Manchester.

FM: Andy Burnham and Richard Leese are banging the drum for Manchester; metro mayor Steve Rotheram and city mayor Joe Anderson are banging the drum for Liverpool. They’ve already got dates in the diaries in Westminster with the new government. Who has Lancashire got going representing them? That’s the big question for me - where’s the leadership?

MG: There is a need for that greater, Lancashire-wide voice. That comes across loud and clear when you speak to local businesses - they want a single voice. How we get to that is another story, but we haven’t created enough of the vision of what that might achieve in terms of devolution. We’ve got a government that is, at least on the face of it, in favour of devolving powers and funding to areas. We’ve got to seize that opportunity because it might not be around forever.

Is the Northern Powerhouse concept too centred on Manchester?

AM: The success of Manchester as a city has come down to its leadership. What I’m hearing around the table here is a fractured view of what Lancashire wants. It doesn’t strike me that Lancashire has a champion who puts their head above the parapets and delivers a vision to the people and carries that vision into Westminster.

SK: Manchester is seen by many as the capital of the Northern Powerhouse. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve had Andy Burnham and Media City.

It’s very easy to talk about the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse when you’re sat in the capital. The impression I get from Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry is that he is going to need to see you coming to him a little bit more.

To some degree is Lancashire acting like a victim? And should we not be a bit more ‘ballsy’ in the way we approach it?

One of Manchester’s biggest issues is infrastructure. Big agencies cannot get the staff because it’s too expensive to get into and live in Manchester and the office rates are forcing them out. So that’s where Lancashire might have a real opportunity.

EHH: When you see a lot of the investment that’s going into infrastructure, when you look at Manchester it’s around the trans-Pennine routes upgrade, which is going to connect them to Leeds. You’ve got HS2 which is going to connect them to the south, but there are no real connections to get from Manchester into the rest of Lancashire.

FM: We still have this challenge in the county of not necessarily having a hub. If we were to say, ‘Where is our greatest opportunity of an investment that is going to be a bit of a game changer? it would be Preston station. It already has decent services to London but with the sort of investment we’re seeing in the cities it could really start to transform and benefit the whole county.

The council there has done a great job in trying to put together a plan B after all the controversy over the Tithebarn development and it is finally starting to show some fruit. But we have to park the parochial differences we have. Preston is the administrative centre. It’s recognised nationally as the place in Lancashire which is the most likely go-to place. Blackburn and the east of the county needs to be sold on the idea of what benefits and advantages that brings them.

MG: We’ve got HS2 coming, fingers crossed. Within seven years the trains will be stopping at Preston, the station needs to be improved; the platforms need to be lengthened to accommodate them.

On the back of that there needs to be an opportunity to regenerate the whole area of Preston and get benefits for the city that spread out across the county.

East to west transport links need to improve. Studies are going on about creating the rail links between Skipton and Colne, which from a business perspective would allow goods to be transported across the Pennines. We also need to find new road routes across the Pennines into Yorkshire.

Lancashire’s enterprise zones are massive, but they don’t necessarily feature in the Northern Powerhouse perspectives, and we’re trying our best to get that up the agenda.

SK: Andy Burnham has been particularly good in getting an awful lot of people rallying round some of his charitable causes, his societal causes like the homelessness problem. We’ve seen the professional services sector come together to try and deal with some of that with him.

So the benefits of having somebody as that figurehead far outweigh what you might see as some of the challenges of pushing his own personal agenda, or maybe speaking out of turn. Sometimes you’ve got to speak out of turn to get your voice heard.

DJ: To some degree is Lancashire acting like a victim? And should we not be a bit more ballsy in the way we approach it? We need to have somebody who speaks on our behalf, a cohesive voice, and Preston is fine with me.

MG: Yes, Preston needs to be the hub and we need to make sure those benefits spill out across the county, but there are also lots of other important initiatives.

Burnley is a case in point. The local council is doing a great job in many of those projects, we’re working with them as a county council to drive them forwards and the economy is driving forward.

They’ve got UCLan which is beginning to transform the town significantly and lots of very good businesses right on their doorstep. We need to improve skills, because that’s a challenge for the Burnley area.

In the north of the county we’re looking at the Eden Project at Morecambe which will be transformational. The county is very varied by its nature, but the sum of its parts can be massive and that’s part of the thinking behind our bid for the City of Culture.

AM: Is that not one of your biggest challenges? Because it strikes me that Manchester and Liverpool have a clear, strong identity. You are talking about disparate towns and people have identified potentially with being from Burnley rather than Lancashire. To what degree do people feel Lancastrian as opposed to being from Preston?

SK: You’ll find a lot more businesses saying we are part of Manchester or Greater Manchester, just to have that badge, rather than identifying as coming from Lancashire, and that’s absolutely got to change.

AM: We see in education even the likes of the University of Derby, the University of Lancaster, are trying to encroach into Manchester with campuses because they want to associate and ally themselves with that brand.

EHH: On the skills agenda, UCLan has a huge student population, but as soon as they’ve worked through the programme there, a lot will be leaving Lancashire.

We’ve got a huge number of people within prisons in Lancashire and there are people in there looking for work when they come out, but it doesn’t really feel like the council are pushing businesses within Lancashire to engage with prisons to find labour.

JF: Andy Burnham’s been very, very lucky to basically inherit an organisation and infrastructure that was already there. These relationships have been built up over time. It’s about stability as well.

It doesn’t strike me that Lancashire has a champion who puts their head above the parapets and delivers a vision to the people and carries that vision into Westminster.

FM: Manchester is the blueprint that we all look to and say, Can we match what they do? But in fact, John made a great point in that once size doesn’t fit all.

Steve Rotheram started with a desk and a phone and four years later has attracted Sony into Liverpool. The idea that this is going to take Lancashire 25 years is a misnomer. Equally, you’re not going to do a Manchester, and you shouldn’t try, you should try and do a Lancashire. Liverpool’s devolution model is very different to Manchester’s devolution model and Lancashire’s should be too.

What does Lancashire need to do now to push itself forward as a Powerhouse voice?

JF: It’s about having the right people around the table. Burnley Bondholders, works because it is the right people with the right skills speaking to each other. It is about having a coherent identity.

SK: Looking at what Jake Berry had to say about this idea of Lancashire making him an offer it does, on one hand, seem very patronising; on the other I think it’s very true. If we are all punching above our weight there’s an opportunity to achieve something pretty extraordinary.

EHH: For me it’s having a figurehead to shout about what Lancashire is doing. Facts like our economy is only just behind Merseyside’s are not being communicated. We’ve big businesses here, we’ve a lot of development going on and we’ve transport links coming. It’s all there – it is having someone to take all that and communicate it.

DJ: We just need to get on with it. It’s a bit like Brexit, isn’t it? We need to do something. We’re talking to death, let’s get on with it.

MG: Some of my colleagues would say that Lancashire is at risk of missing out. I would go further than that. We’ve already missed out on attracting hundreds of millions of investment into the county and that’s what it’s about for me. Attracting that money and attracting the decision-making powers so that we can make decisions at a local level.

We need to find a way of collaborating better so that we can combine the collective strengths of each of the 12 districts, the two unitaries and the county council.

If we can collaborate, we can attract more investment whilst maintaining the identity of every part of the county and we’d have the best of both worlds. The economy would fly, our businesses would succeed and we’d create more jobs. That’s the prize. Seize the opportunity.

  • To read this feature in full and access further Lancashire business news, advice and analysis subscribe to Lancashire Business View magazine or join the LBV Hub from just £2.50 per month. Click here to subscribe now.