Former Civil Service head calls for major devolution to tackle North / South divide

By Hull Daily Mail | Posted: 9 Feb 2018

FORMER head of the Civil Service, Lord Kerslake, has called for a new Northern Economic Forum to take the big decisions on transport, skills and economic development.

In a speech to business leaders at Hull & Humber Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Dinner tonight, he called for more power to be moved away from Westminster in something “much bigger than just city deals,” a “fundamental change in how Britain is governed”.

He also told guests that he had noticed “a recent change in the headlines” about Hull, with the “brilliant success” of the year as City of Culture, reflecting on the £60 million economic boost from 3.5 million visitors.

And turning to the South Bank, where he sits on the Greater Grimsby Partnership Board, he urged Government “to get behind it and give it its full support,” as it was an “opportunity not to be missed,” praising David Ross’ able chairing of it.

TOP TABLE: Lord Kerslake, centre, with Chamber president Phil Ascough and vice president Sally Booker. 

His main thrust was devolution, of which that is clearly a part. 

Condemning the “massive economic imbalance” between the North and the South, Lord Kerslake said more focus was required on deep structural issues in the economy.

“Stagnant wages, low investment, low productivity, a growing trade imbalance and the yawning economic gap between the North and South,” all need to be addressed, he said, adding that  London and the South East, which together account for 40 per cent of the UK’s GDP, are the only two regions to have recovered from the financial crash of 10 years ago and to match the best performing areas in northern Europe.

Lord Kerslake said: “Put simply, we have a massive economic imbalance that ought be front and centre of any government’s thinking. As a country, we are simply missing out on a lot of what the North has to offer. A key part of tackling this is to move power decisively away from Whitehall and Westminster. Not just city deals but something much bigger. A fundamental change in how Britain is governed. 

“John Prescott had the Northern Way, George Osborne developed the Northern Powerhouse and Gordon Brown has spoken of a Council of the North – not such a good name if you are a follower of Game of Thrones – either way we need a new Northern Economic Forum, able to take the big decisions on transport, skills and economic development.

“This would not be instead of giving more powers to local government, but as well as. Real devolution to the North to give it the powers it needs to shape its economic future.”

Lord Kerslake appeared at the Doubletree by Hilton as keynote speaker, and told how until recently stories of Hull were “almost universally about its problems,” covering the “huge economic, political and social challenges for the city”.

Referring to Larkin’s description of it being in the shadows, it is now in the open, thanks to 2,000 events including the Royal Ballet, the Proms and the Turner Prize. “No wonder the Arts Council called it a rip roaring success,” he said. 

Turning to the economic success, he flagged up the “tireless work the Local Enterprise Partnership led by Lord Haskins and of course, this Chamber”. He touched on the transformation of Alexandra Dock with the £310 million Siemens Gamesa and ABP investment, “upwards of a thousand jobs are being created from this one project alone," he said. “Hull has genuinely succeeded in its goal of coming ‘out of the shadows’.”

Of Grimsby, he said: “There the Council, working with business and others, have come up with a bold and ambitious proposal to Government for a ‘Town Deal’ for Grimsby. The would be the first of its kind in the country. 

"I really hope that the Government gets behind it and gives it its full support. It is an opportunity not to be missed.”

Reflecting that economic, political and social challenges have not completely gone away, Lord Kerslake added: “The Humber is now able to face them with much greater confidence, partnership and purpose – and this matters a great deal.”

Brexit: "I will not be voting for it if I think it seriously damages the future economic interests of this country"

Defending the role of the civil service in Brexit, Lord Kerslake told one of the strongest leave polling regions he won’t be voting to accept the deal if he thinks it will wreak serious economic damage.

It came after this week economic forecasts were revealed that predicted the three likely outcomes would all have a negative impact in every region.

Lord Kerslake said: “Much of the debate in the news recently has been about whether the Civil Service is biased on Brexit and cooking up the figures to get the outcome it wants.

“Can I say as a former Head of the Civil Service that I deplore these attacks on the impartiality of the civil service. It is simply trying to do its job in the face of a Government that can’t make its mind up on what kind of Brexit it really wants.

“It is I’m afraid a statement of the obvious to say that if we make trade harder with our largest trading partner, the EU, this will have an adverse impact on our economy. It can’t and won’t be made up quickly by doing more trade with other parts of the world.

The harder we make trading with Europe, the bigger the economic impact will be. And the biggest impact won’t be in the South, but in places in the north like the Humber, who provided some of the biggest votes for Brexit.

“The rubber will hit the road on Brexit around November when the Government comes back to Parliament and puts forward the agreed deal or even an outcome of no deal at all.

“Whatever anyone says, we will have a meaningful vote.  And I for one will not be voting for it if I think it seriously damages the future economic interests of this country.”

Learnings on economic growth and regeneration

Lord Kerslake imparted wisdom on economic growth and regeneration to guests. 

Referring back to his time as chief executive of Sheffield City Council, where he served for a decade from 1997, he said: “I learnt three important things about economic growth and regeneration.

“Firstly, that in terms of our economic future, we as a city could as only really influence 20 per cent of what happened to us. 

“The rest was down to what was going on in the national and international economy. But influencing that 20 per cent was really, really important. It is is possible for cities to go up and down the league table. Local leadership can make a real difference.

“My second bit of learning was that regeneration is a marathon not a sprint. People ask me whether regeneration about inward investment, better skills, investment in roads, or improving the town centre. The answer is that it is about all of the above and more, and you have to keep going at it for a long time through the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

“An actor once said that it took them 14 years to be an overnight sensation. That is also true of regeneration. There is no quick and easy route to success.

“Thirdly, you must have clear leadership and strong partnership.

Under the day to day pressures of managing the budget or keeping the business going, organisations can close in and stop talking to each other. Divisions emerge and discord, often in public, becomes the norm. Whenever this happens, the area suffers and suffers badly.

“It is difficult to overstate the importance of strong partnership and a common sense of purpose in delivering economic success. Have your debates and arguments, but do it in private where you can and don’t give up on the discussion until you have come to a shared view. The Chambers of Commerce play a vital role in this.”

Professional & Support Services News
Share Article

Grimsby News

The three new high-rise apartment blocks which could dominate Cleethorpes' skyline

Hull & East Riding News

World's leading electric vehicle manufacturer commits to Hull's 200m energy park plan

Scunthorpe News

Concrete plans for 200 jobs and major heavy manufacturing in Scunthorpe

Your News

Would you want your employees working from home? Read more in our Your News special report