The Prezza and Hezza Show: Northern Powerhouse conference

becg North Director Kevin Whitmore with John Prescott and Michael Heseltine at Northern Powerhouse conference

becg North Director Kevin Whitmore with John Prescott and Michael Heseltine

Lord Michael Heseltine and John Prescott were the star turns at the New Statesman Northern Powerhouse conference on Thursday. The event, sponsored by becg, saw over two hundred attendees make their way from across a snowy North to Leeds Town Hall. So what did they have to say?

The Northern Powerhouse has its flaws, but we need to press ahead anyway, Prescott argued. He compared it unfavourably to his 2004 Northern Way project, saying the Northern Powerhouse was not properly regional. Indeed, the Government’s phrase is “sub-national”.

The centralisation of decentralisation

It is the “centralisation of decentralisation”, he said. Unlike Transport for London and devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales, Transport for the North is not a decision-making body. Most of the key decisions about the Northern Powerhouse are still being taken in Whitehall.

Turning to rail, Prescott said freight is not getting the attention it needs. It’s a mistake, he said, to make passenger rail the priority and downgrade freight. Strategic decisions need to be made about East-West train lines too.

Prescott warned against a Northern Powerhouse that just made Manchester the “London of the North”, and beat a drum for Hull and the Humber estuary, along with the many other towns and cities.

Heseltine: Lack of leadership

When Michael Heseltine spent three weeks in Liverpool in 1981, everyone knew the problems, he said. But there was always someone else to blame. The real problem, he saw, was a lack of leadership. If places like Yorkshire want serious devolution, Heseltine argued, they need to show leadership. The politicians have to demonstrate they can work together. It needs people with the skill to unite warring factions. West of the Pennines great progress has been made. To the East, with the exception of Tees Valley, rather less.

Michael Heseltine has forgotten more about the ways of government than most of us will ever know. He warned that it’s against human nature to give away power. He set out his recipe for making devolution successful:

Tribal instincts

Move away from tribal instincts. People trying to protect what they’ve got are doing great damage to devolution. The reality is that, so far, no powers have been taken away from local authorities. It’s all been powers handed down from Central Government to Combined Authorities. It’s essential to reach local agreements if you’re to build confidence in Whitehall that you won’t mess up.

When your Combined Authority gets money, Heseltine argued, use it well. Don’t silt it up with revenue expenditure. Spend it on capital projects and infrastructure. Use it competitively, with gearing. At the very worst in the ’80s, he said, the Government got £1.50 of private money for each £1 of public money invested. In Docklands it was £10 private for £1 public.

Don’t ask “Will it work?”, say “we’ll make it work.” MPs have their own career structure based around Westminster. It’s easy to get caught up. Remind them where they come from and who they ultimately answer to.

Devolve education

And devolve education futher. The North does not do well from Britain’s education system. The UK is well down the list in world education standings. We tolerate failure in schools too often, Lord Heseltine said: being average is not good enough. It needs local responsibility to change and improve.

Heseltine and Prescott didn’t agree on everything. Prescott was more sceptical over whether the “sub-national” Northern Powerhouse was really the right body, and whether it was getting the powers it needed. For Heseltine, the challenge is more for local politicians to step up to the mark.

But they were both very clear that right now the Northern Powerhouse, and Combined Authorities, are the only game in town.

In all of this, communication is key. At becg we believe the Northern Powerhouse’s success will be maximised by uniting the  private sector, public sector and the people of the North. We need a common understanding, with all sides effectively communicating. Lord Heseltine calls for local leadership and public/private partnership. Lord Prescott calls for greater devolution. They will only be achieved with effective communication.

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