Government Plans for a New ‘Voice of the North’ Organisation

A new Government-backed organisation could be created to help grow the economy of the North of England, attract more foreign investment and act “as one external voice” for the region of 15m people.

The Northern Agenda politics newsletter has learned that Michael Gove’s Levelling Up department has started talks about a publicly-funded “pan-regional partnership” (PRP) for the North similar to bodies in the Midlands and Oxford-Cambridge.

But despite being at an early stage the idea already faces opposition. A leading business organisation says the PRP risks becoming a “talking shop” to give the impression the Government is committed to the Northern Powerhouse idea. And it may struggle to attract the support of elected mayors concerned that the creation of a pan-Northern voice will undermine their efforts to attract investment to their own regions.

The Newcastle Chronicle is reporting that the proposal comes nearly four years after then Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised a conference in Rotherham, South Yorkshire in 2019 that his Government would set up “a new, stronger Northern Powerhouse growth body” which would be “led by a Northerner”. The idea never became a reality.

But a letter sent out by London-based consultancy firm Henham Strategy, seen by The Northern Agenda, says the Levelling Up Department wants to follow the example of existing bodies like the Midlands Engine and the Thames Estuary Growth Board.

It adds: “The Northern PRP will act as a strategic, apolitical body that delivers coordinated, evidence-based pan-regional policy development for the benefit of the North. It will also help grow the region’s global footprint, acting as one external voice for the North, helping to boost trade and investment into the region.”

No decisions have yet been made about what powers or funding the new body would have, or how it would be run. But the letter said the common objectives for PRPs were to “grow the global footprint across the region” and boost trade and investment, encourage collaboration and shared priorities and develop evidence to help grow local economies.

Henham Strategy has been asked to find out whether there is an appetite for a new organisation by NP11, the body which describes itself as “the business-led voice for the North” and represents the region’s 11 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). But the NP11 faces an uncertain future after the Government announced in March that LEPs – a partnership between public and private sector set up to boost local economies – would be abolished and their powers handed to mayors and councils.

There is also a regional body, Transport for the North, set up to lead on major pan-Northern transport schemes. But in recent years its funding has been cut and its advice on Northern Powerhouse Rail ignored by Ministers, with ex-Transport Secretary Grant Shapps describing it as a “talking shop”.

David Levene, NP11 director, said: “The Government is keen to look at how public and private sector partnership-working can be strengthened across the North. The NP11 is in the early stages of exploring options with a range of political, civic, and business leaders to understand how we can build on successful pan-northern collaboration to date and best support local efforts to grow the region’s economy.”

The move comes at a time when many observers fear the ‘levelling up’ agenda promoted by Mr Johnson as Prime Minister has been pushed down the political agenda since he was forced to resign last summer. But the North remains a net drain on the public purse – costing more taxpayers’ money than it contributes – while millions across the region are deprived of the opportunities enjoyed by those in the South East and London.

Juergen Maier, the former chief executive of Siemens UK and Vice Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said: “There is no case for a talking shop about the North to give the appearance the Government is committed to the Northern Powerhouse agenda seriously, when it isn’t. Proper devolution of pan Northern current Whitehall powers, like over education alongside trade and investment, would be in line with the promise made by this Government [in Rotherham in 2019]”.

Another senior business figure said a strong leader was needed for the new organisation, adding: “If done right it’s an opportunity, done wrong it will be a disaster.”

Earlier this year, plans for PRP for the Oxford to Cambridge “corridor” were approved by the Government, with Mr Gove saying that having a “strong regional brand” meant the area could compete for “investment on the global stage”.

It follows a proposal submitted by leaders from local councils, local enterprise partnerships, the Arc Universities Group and the area’s transport body, England’s Economic Heartland. Mr Gove’s backing unlocks access to up to £2.5m in government funding to support the PRP’s priorities.

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