Graham Robb: Politicians are going to have to park the dreams and schemes

Chairman of the Institute of Directors in the North Graham Robb, says the North East needs greater economic devolution

Graham Robb
Graham Robb

Scotland has voted - and those of us in business can breathe a sigh of relief.

We no longer face the prospect of companies we trade with becoming international partners. Nor do we face the hassle of different tax regimes or two currency zones. Investment that was put on hold can be advanced with confidence after a decisive vote.

The reaction in the North East from some was predictable. It fell into two categories: political and economic.

Firstly, let me tackle the political argument – that the North East needs ‘new powers’; we even heard some people use the vote in Scotland as an excuse to re-frame old and discredited ideas for a regional assembly.

The phrase ‘New Powers’ from politicians or think tanks is invariably code for more political structures and more politicians; new powers to business leaders mean more economic power and more effective use of existing structures.

Trust me when I say that if politicians and think tanks take over this agenda it will end in ‘tiers’ – tiers of bureaucracy, tiers of political power from parish councils to Europe, and tiers of decision making that will slow things down as arguments rage over who is responsible for what.

What we need is for politicians to work together. In the USA groups of politicians in the House of Representatives and the Senate form caucuses; we have more than 30 MPs in the North East, who put their local party interests first and foremost. This myopic approach to politics leads to stand-offs and inaction.

Churchill had a good phrase for deciding conflicting priorities: Country, Constituency, Party. North East politicians should form a NE Caucus and take common positions. For example, at the moment the major London airports are lobbying for the right to expand; our MPs should gather around the proposal that gives this region the best and cheapest landing slots and attempt to force it through. We don’t need new political structures to make a difference, we just need the existing structures to work better.

The real devolution that is needed is in economic resources. Give us the money and we will do the job. The current government has the City Deal programme, which involves devolving some resources being spent by Whitehall civil servants to Local Enterprise Partnerships. The LEPs are bodies with few staff but lots of energy. Each has a board made up of local authorities and local businesses with business holding a slender majority.

The City Deal programme takes an idea proposed by Lord Heseltine and, in baby steps, attempts to spread the resources of England further. But it is far too timid and it needs to be turbo-charged.

Take transport. I surveyed all the North East Institute of Directors members in May and the number one issue for them was transport and regional connectivity. London is obviously in need of a huge transport budget – it has a population density of around 70,000 per square mile and it is expensive to move them about.

However, the scale of the difference is almost beyond belief; London receives 24 times more transport investment than North East England! Of course some transport funding that is not within the North East benefits us directly, for example the upgrade of the A1 to motorway status from Wetherby to Scotch Corner has caused years of roadworks but when finally finished will have sped up journey times dramatically.

But within the North East it is a joke that we don’t have a three lane motorway and that our major roads to Scotland and across to the North West are glorified country lanes. We are the UK’s greatest exporting region, this is helped by great ports but hindered by poor road links and expensive rail journeys. In my view the English transport budget should be the first to get the Heseltine treatment!

I was full of joy when the Scottish result came through last week. It reminded me of the day that the North East rejected a regional assembly; common sense prevailed and the quiet majority made their views known.

Now we need politicians to act with our economy in mind and park their dreams and schemes. I say ‘yes’ to greater economic devolution, ‘no’ to expensive new structures.

  • Graham Robb is Chairman of Institute of Directors in the North East and Senior Partner at Recognition PR


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