Ministers are queueing up to exploit the positive profile of the Northern Powerhouse programme and use it to influence George Osborne on numerous policy fronts, according to James Wharton MP, minister for the Northern Powerhouse.
Addressing an invitation-only roundtable debate organised by Remarkable Engagement and hosted at Central Library during the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Wharton said the Northern Powerhouse programme was “starting to pervade all areas of Government.”
Wharton, member for Stockton South, told the 20 guests that his colleagues across Whitehall were using the Northern Powerhouse to sell ideas to the chancellor “from a different angle”.
“Ministers know it is George Osborne’s pet project and believe he will be much more willing to listen if what they’re asking for has got Northern Powerhouse implications.”
Wharton said he was holding a “steady stream of meetings” with ministers from other departments – he sits within Department for Communities & Local Government – and cited culture, media and sport, health and education.
Throughout the discussion, the minister repeatedly mentioned the forthcoming government spending review and said further cuts were inevitable. Public bodies, including councils, must prepare to “operate in a narrower spending envelope”, he warned.
Among the priorities for the future direction of Northern Powerhouse, Wharton explained, were working with UK Trade & Investment to organise overseas trips with a specific Northern Powerhouse theme. He frequently sees examples across the North where there is potential for foreign investment, but did not give examples.
On transport, he said there have until now been far too many bodies involved in running public transport. He expected the new Transport for the North collective of local authorities to “take on the strategic thinking” and encouraged further groups of councils to pool resources together to push their transport agendas, but stopped short of saying power would be totally devolved from the Department for Transport.
On the geographic definition of the Northern Powerhouse Wharton said: “I don’t care where the regional boundaries are.” He had held a positive meeting with business leaders in North Wales recently and visited employers in Deeside. He asked rhetorically why anyone would stop Deeside being in the Northern Powerhouse, half the workforce crosses a national border every day but does not recognise political boundaries.
The geographic area most associated with Northern Powerhouse, Manchester city region, “has no in perpetuity right to lead this area [of policy]”, he added, but conceded people will look to Manchester as the prime example to date.
“I want to see rural and smaller suburban areas get involved,” and illustrated his point with the expansion of the energy sector in Cumbria.
Of the 40 bids submitted in the last round of the devolution deal process, there were a mixed bag he said. Further deals would be announced following Manchester and, more recently, Sheffield, but declined to give names. He likened the mixed quality of the proposals to the performance of Local Enterprise Partnerships, of which he said: “ We operate a traffic light system for [assessing] LEPs but we don’t publish it.”
The Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill, introduced to the Lords by Baroness Williams of Trafford in May 2015, is due to go forward to the House of Commons when members return next week. The bill is expected to get Royal ascent in the New Year. When it becomes an act of Parliament it will be used to put the structure in place for delivery and to pass powers to local combined authorities. In return for greater spending power and freedom, groups of councils will agree to introduce directly elected mayors.
Wharton said the government “wants to create the environment for economic growth” and “the Northern Powerhouse will be a thread throughout this Parliament.”
The guests who attended the debate, chaired by Julius Duncan of Remarkable Engagement, were: Will Ainscough, HIMOR Group; Steve Secker, McCarthy & Stone; Bernard Rooney, Barratt Developments; James Whittaker, Peel Land & Property; Jennie Daly, Taylor Wimpey; Stephen Bowler, iGas Energy; Tim Hawkins, Manchester Airports Group; Alex Hynes, Northern Rail; Sam Stafford, Barratt Developments; Myles Kitcher, Peel Environmental; Mark Williamson, Electricity North West; Nick Donovan, First TransPennine Express; Liam Buckley, Clyde & Co; Richard Threlfall, KPMG; Peter Rose, INEOS Shale; Alan Welby, Liverpool Local Enterprise Partnership; Paul Ringer, Viridor; Nicola Kane, Transport for Greater Manchester; Karl Smyth, Drax Group.