Northern England: Opportunity and Productivity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:11 pm on 12th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Mawson Lord Mawson Crossbench 1:11 pm, 12th January 2017

My Lords, as a northerner gone south I welcome this report and its focus and am thankful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for introducing this important debate.

I have spent a great deal of my life trying to stimulate integrated local economies in what appear from the outside to be unpromising contexts. In doing so, one has learned quite a bit over the past 30-plus years about how the world can look from Whitehall and the desks of researchers who are overconfident about the value of the papers they read by other researchers, and talkers in the press who often live at 60,000 feet above all the action. I am interested in what the world looks like through the eyes of practitioners engaged in the detailed work on the ground of rebuilding local economies. What is valued by the research community, who are chasing grants and their next funding, and what counts on the ground in practice may be very different. This is a helpful report but, like many other similar reports, it is overconfident about the role of the public sector—its structures, frameworks, policies and the like—and does not pay enough attention to the details of the business and social entrepreneurs actually doing the job on the ground.

I have been involved in the Olympic project in east London for over 17 years, in thousands of practical details on the ground that are generating quite a legacy. I have discovered that today there is still one story at 60,000 feet in Whitehall—about how we have successfully used this event to regenerate the east London economy—and quite another story to be told, on the ground, about what made the fine words and statements deliver in practice.

I will repeat my well-worn mantra: the way into understanding macro changes—in this case in the northern economy—is in the micro and the local community. The economies of the north are made up of thousands of local economies that need to thrive. The question is, as always, about the practical detail: this is where the devil sits. Real economies, in the north and in east London, are built by entrepreneurial people who take problems and turn them into opportunities. They are not built by government structures, frameworks and all the other clutter that this report is in danger of relying on too much. The public sector has an important role, yes—not in swamping those of us who rebuild these local economies in politics and red tape, but in creating the conditions within which business and social entrepreneurs can thrive.

Reference is often made to the history of the northern economies. My own city of Bradford’s economy was built not by the public sector and government paraphernalia but by wool entrepreneurs such as Samuel Cunliffe Lister and Sir Titus Salt, among others. How much time have these researchers spent with these northern entrepreneurs in our own day, looking at what the world looks like through the eyes of these practitioners? This is where the rich grain of gold is to be found—not in generalities but in detailed practicalities.

As I engage today in 10 towns and cities across the north, in areas with great social and economic challenges, I am coming across some fantastic opportunities to rebuild our economies in the north. However, to do this the traditional siloed thinking and overreliance on reports like this will have to go. We live in a digital age; everything has changed. The job of the state is to create the conditions within which entrepreneurs can thrive, not to research and measure them to death with little purpose other than to feed the beast which is government.

I shall illustrate briefly one such opportunity in one northern community, a place where I am working. I have worked in west Cumbria on and off over the last 15 years. Successive Governments have poured billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into the nuclear industry there and into the local economy. We have been right to do so: the nuclear industry really matters. However, the way successive Governments have done this has created a profound dependency culture in local communities—what the local MP described at one recent meeting I attended as “basket-case government structures”. Have we learned any lessons from all this previous activity? No: I learned many years ago that government is not a learning organisation. It too easily repeats old formulas and past mistakes, despite all the millions we spend on research keeping our universities in business.

An opportunity to work with the people of west Cumbria—particularly the next generation of young people, who I am already engaging with—is emerging, an opportunity to innovate and do things differently as new investment makes its way up the M6. I am already working with key business leaders in the nuclear industry there, and local entrepreneurs, to explore what an entrepreneurial culture might look like for a new generation. My interests are in the register. Later this summer, on 28 September, Professor Brian Cox will join me and my colleagues as we replicate a very successful science summer school there which we have been pioneering together over the last five years in east London, exploring how Britain can become the best place to do science and engineering in the world. Cumbria desperately needs a new narrative that takes it out of 1970s and puts it and its important industry firmly on the global map as a place of nuclear excellence. Who better to explore that modern narrative than Professor Brian Cox?

The question for the Government in this important piece of the northern economy is whether they will allow my colleagues and me to innovate. Will they allow us to move beyond the traditional silos and create a truly entrepreneurial and—yes—safe and responsible community, or will a thousand little pieces of legislation and a lack of continuity and bold leadership miss the moment and leave the next generation wondering whether it has a future in the north? I hope it does. Look at the health data in Cumbria: the effects of a dependency culture are in plain sight.