The final Budget before the General Election must empower the region, deliver greater controls over transport and drive housebuilding, says the North East Chamber of Commerce.
In the organisation’s official message to Chancellor George Osborne, the NECC officially backs the £15bn Transport for the North proposal, which would see transport devolved and a commissioner figure introduced for the region.
Decisions must be responsive to economic conditions if the North East is to become part of the Chancellor’s ‘Northern powerhouse’, the NECC adds, and road upgrades already announced - including the long-awaited part-dualling of the A1 north of Newcastle - must get underway as soon as possible.
Director of policy Ross Smith said: “Championing the North East as a major asset for UK PLC; meeting our future skills needs; supporting business and driving growth drives growth; world class connectivity and energy infrastructure; and tackling the cost of doing business remain at the forefront of what the NECC does for its members and this is what we have addressed in our ask of the Chancellor.”
He added: “Transport for the North represents a massive opportunity for the North of England.
“It will not only help improve investment in Northern transport infrastructure, it will help us fight collectively for a bigger slice of the cake as a more effective counterweight to London and the South East.
“We back IPPR North’s request to George Osborne to use this budget to create a £15bn transport devolution package. This is absolutely necessary to fire up the Northern powerhouse.
“In spite of progress, the UK economy remains too geographically imbalanced. North East businesses know they can make a stronger contribution and we require policy to support this.
“We face many challenges in the coming year, but I believe these can also be used as opportunities.
“The North East is uniquely exposed to a Scottish economy with powers to increase levels of inward investment support and reduce taxation, diverting investment and activity from the North East. Generating growth against the pull of such incentives is incredibly difficult.
“Greater regional devolution will enable local decision makers to develop policy with better and more locally relevant information.
“With meaningful resources there is a strong case for devolving finance and decision making powers to regions such as the North East.”
The NECC also calls for action on a skills shortages.
“The future of funding support for skills remains uncertain,” added Ross.
“Businesses fear proposed changes would place funding with employers and will lead to significant bureaucratic hurdles for SMEs. We want the Government to adjust funding for apprentices and hope to see a more appropriate set of proposals brought forward.”
As North East exports continue to grow at a faster rate than other regions, the NECC has urged the Chancellor to bolster the local economy.
“Our economy has more strength and depth than ever before,” said Ross. “As well as an international trade record better than any other part of the UK, real wages are among the highest in the country, while productivity and the overall cost of doing business make the North East a great asset for the national economy.
“If we are to maintain a strong record as an internationally trading region with a positive balance of trade, the region’s exporters must receive more support. To realise the Government’s target to source 500 new North East exporters by 2020, the UKTI budget should again be increased with enhanced flexibility in spending at a regional level.
“We also need a better joined up offer from Government support organisations, including the Manufacturing Advisory Service, Growth Accelerator, Innovate UK and UKTI.”
Housebuilding must also be a priority for the Chancellor and policy should exclude England’s capital to be meaningful for regions.
Ross said: “The North East should be a prime development area, but policy and economic conditions must be conducive to capitalise on potential.
“Housing need and barriers to delivering more homes are different in each region. Policy must be attuned to these differences and formulated with the active involvement of regional stakeholders who understand the market. Any assessment of the national housing market for judging national policy should exclude London, which is a unique market within the UK that distorts the national picture.”