This weekend the Great Exhibition of the North opens in Newcastle. It is a two-month long exhibition, celebrating art, culture, design and innovation in the North of England, and coincides with a new sense of Northern ambition, aspiration and opportunity.
To mark this event, Metro Mayors and local leaders from across the North of England will come together for a day of debate and discussion focussed on understanding the challenges and opportunities that Northern communities face. And, where possible, enabling politicians from the North of England to speak with a single voice on the issues that matter to them.
This is not to say that the North is a homogenous entity, or that the people of Rotherham, Rochdale and Richmond live the same lives or think the same way. But rather that the communities that make up the North of England – be they cities, towns or villages – have much in common. And that the best way to serve those communities is through empowered regional administrations collaborating to overcome the challenges they face.
One such challenge is that of low productivity. The North is 25% less economically productive, per person, than the UK average - which in itself is already 15% below the average of the rest of the G7. For working people in the North this gap contributes to an income deficit of over £5,000 a year, when compared to the UK average.
In 2016, an independent economic review found that low productivity in the North was a result of a number of key factors. These included: too low a proportion of high-skilled workers; insufficient exploitation of innovation and technology; low levels of investment; low levels of enterprise; poor transport infrastructure; and a need for greater ‘pan-northern’ co-operation – “agglomeration” as the report put it.
Tackling this productivity problem, and the factors that cause it must now become a priority. We will only maximise the North’s capabilities in areas such as advanced manufacturing, energy production, health innovation and digital technology, if Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, and the communities of Yorkshire and the North East work together to tackle these issue. We must be greater than the sum of our parts.
This is what devolution and empowered local areas working together offers, an opportunity for regional leaders to work together to: get a grip of training and skills; shape the labour market; promote enterprise; encourage the commercialisation of innovation and technology; fight for investment in infrastructure; and deliver services focussed on the specific needs of regional communities. Exactly what is required to tackle the ‘productivity-gap’, eradicate the north-south divide, and improve the lives of working people.
Whether it’s a mayoral model or an assembly model, when we get devolution right it offers a fairer and more democratic means of governing and delivering. One where working people have a greater say in the choices that affect their lives, and a greater stake in the services they rely upon.
But for this to happen we must enable the right level of devolution and abandon an economic and political model that’s only hope is for wealth to trickle down and prosperity to ripple out. We must replace it with a fully empowered three-tier system of government – local, regional, national. Giving each tier the powers and resources they need to make a difference in the communities for which they are responsible. And we must give those leaders a clear voice in Westminster.
Only if we do this correctly will we be putting the right people at the heart of decision making; end the status quo with which so many people have become disenfranchised; and allow regional communities to overcome the challenges they face. Only if we get devolution right, will we allow the North to make the most of its opportunities and turn people’s new sense of aspiration and expectation into a reality. Metro Mayors and council Leaders working together should only be the beginning of the devolution story.
Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and mayor of Sheffield City Region