My Lords, first I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for introducing this timely debate so elegantly. Her view of the dangers of centralisation came across powerfully. My own contribution is from the perspective of small business in my part of the north, especially Cumbria.
Before venturing further, I need to declare my personal interests. I remain on the board of, or am otherwise involved in, my family’s activities in Cumbria. They include farming, forestry, leisure, mineral extraction, housebuilding, aggregates and horseracing.
This is my first encounter with the work of IPPR. I had rather imagined them to be a left-of-centre think tank with rather predictable views. I am very pleased to repent of my ill-conceived prejudice and I commend its website to anyone who has not seen it: they have a treat in store. Nor do I have a problem with many of the IPPR’s recommendations. I like the idea—as does the noble Baroness—of resilience audits. I also support, in principle, the concept of a northern Brexit negotiating committee, subject always to the details of its composition.
With all reports, whether they come from government or think tanks, I find myself asking who the authors have been speaking, and listening, to. I am usually left with the feeling that the conclusions reached, where business is concerned, are garnered from those men and women who are pleased to call themselves “business leaders”. Many of them are in command of large corporatist businesses and dislike risk—and certainly uncertainty—of any kind. By contrast, those of us in the SME sector wake up every morning of our lives to personal risk and uncertainty. We do not complain: it is the life-blood of our very existence. The cohorts of officials advising Ministers have problems understanding the sector. Why would it be otherwise? They have never been near a risk-taking enterprise.
What has become increasingly evident lately, however, is how remote from the business environment the political class has become: witness perhaps the fact that only two of the 23 noble Lords taking part in this debate will be responsible for paying the wages tomorrow morning. My request that a better way be found to hear what the SME sector has to say is not special pleading; it is essential because we represent such a large proportion of the nation’s economy and its growth.
Where I do take issue with the report is where it says that, after such encouraging progress in the north, “dark clouds are gathering” and,
“uncertainty now pervades the northern mood”.
I see no sign of the northern powerhouse flagging. I am old enough to be rather wary of industrial strategies, but whatever the Government are doing in the north—and it amounts to a great deal—it seems to me to have been an enormous success and I thank them for it. Less good is the situation in my own county of Cumbria—what has sometimes been described by noble Lords as “north of the north”. We face the usual challenges of infrastructure needs and connectivity, as well as problems with skills and education—the matters elegantly described by the noble Baroness.
We will not lack opportunities post-Brexit. I believe that there is scope for further development in our traditional strengths of agriculture and tourism. Significant investment is already coming into the county. We have the nuclear coast and major shipbuilding orders, and there is investment in energy and pharmaceuticals, with more besides. However, looking ahead, enduring benefits for Cumbria will not be achieved unless and until the burning issue of local governance is resolved.
For a number of years I sat on Cumbria County Council. I am delighted to see in his place, and due to speak, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, who serves with great distinction on the council and enjoys a formidable reputation there. I hope that he will throw more light than I am able to on the problem of devolution. I believe it is a fact that our LEP had to accept what amounts to a pitiful settlement through Cumbria’s failure to agree a devo deal.
In Cumbria we have half a million people—there are more sheep than people—and we are governed by 600 elected representatives, plus their support staff. It is small wonder that one civil servant in exasperation told me, “You are over-governed and under-led”.
In conclusion, I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has to say on this local matter, but I wonder whether the Minister might consider reminding the world how much my county and others like it could stand to gain with a degree of reform, which has worked so well elsewhere.