Monday, 10 November 2014

South East must rise to political challenge of a Northern Powerhouse

Is there a danger the South East will lose out to the northern cities in the run up to the next election and the fall-out from the Scottish Referendum? Maxim’s Andrew Metcalf believes there’s a real risk the Government will adopt a northern-first approach to economic development at the expense of communities in the South East unless the region makes a stronger case for support. 

Next year is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta (it was never signed), which attempted to placate the northern barons. Could history repeat itself as the northern regions call for greater powers, and the south gets overlooked?

George Osborne, Chancellor and a Cheshire MP, has already put the prospect of a Northern Region on the agenda, floating plans to invest in infrastructure linking Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. While we all know political rhetoric is easy, it does show where Government policy is focused.

The Chancellor outlined five ingredients he believes would create a connected northern powerhouse, namely: 
  • successful businesses 
  • modern high-speed transport 
  • big science investments 
  • top universities 
  • strong leadership 
I’d argue these are five ingredients Kent has already got, the question is whether we’re making the most of them.

It might be politically attractive to try and close the economic gap between north and south, but this shouldn’t be done at the expense of the south. There’s a need for pragmatism, and recognition by the Government and civil servants that the only net contributing regions to the Treasury are London and the South East. 

The South East needs to better communicate the case for Government support. The Chancellor was responding to the One North report when he made the pledge that he was ready to commit new money, new infrastructure, new transport and new science. And real new civic power too.

He said: “Ideas for a major transfer of powers and budgets to cities in the north, who want to move to a new model of city government, will be announced.”

And at the heart of this drive are efforts to build on the work of Cities and Universities minister Greg Clark and the various city and growth deals. Importantly Greg Clark is a Kent MP.

The South East needs to respond to the challenge, develop its case for funding, and win the argument that the Government should invest in its winners. 

We need to focus on George Osborne’s five ingredients and explain why every pound spent in the South East will deliver the best possible return on investment for the country as a whole. 

Who can, and should, lead the campaign to promote our case? 

In our part of the region, the simple answer is the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP). Covering Essex, Kent and East Sussex, and unitaries, it can bring together the powerful public sector and business community with one voice.

The General Election is only months away. With UKIP on the charge after its first parliamentary victory at Clacton-on-Sea, there will be many South East politicians looking at how to secure re-election. 

Nothing focuses the mind like the thought of losing power, and the time is now right for SELEP to galvanise local MPs to argue the case for greater investment in the region to help them shore up support.

The SELEP Growth Deal successfully unlocked millions for infrastructure investment in the region. The conversation with Government now needs to focus on a smaller number of bigger projects, the ones that are real game changers for our communities.

So what are these game changers? It’s the big ticket items, not a myriad of small scale projects, that will counter the clamour for the northern powerhouse, and deliver long term growth for the south and match George Osborne’s big five ingredients. 

Looking at Kent, SELEP – alongside the local authorities and business leaders – should be arguing the case for investing in:
  • A new Lower Thames Crossing linking Gravesham and Essex, and not simply building it next to the existing one at Dartford, thus unlocking sites in Medway and enhancing Maidstone’s connectivity
  • Ebbsfleet Garden City, although much of it already has planning support, let’s be positive about the money on offer that’s now backing its delivery
  • M2 improvements en route to the Port of Dover with investment in the Western Docks revival
  • A new junction on the M2 to support the growth of Kent Science Park
  • M20 investment capitalising on its motorway junctions to unlock major sites for employment and homes, such as at Ashford and MaidstoneDiscovery Park, and the prospect of extending (not watering down) the Enterprise Zone to cover the recently closed and sold Manston Airport. 
It’s also about tackling the issues we share across Kent, Essex and East Sussex. These include support for our rural economy and regeneration of coastal communities, and significant investment in skills, training and innovation.

And when we’ve got high level Government support for Kent’s major projects we then need to ensure the planning authorities and politicians are fully signed-up so we can fully capitalise on the economic opportunities.

• Andrew Metcalf represents business as an alternate member of SELEP and sits on the Kent & Medway Economic Partnership and Kent Business Advisory Board.

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