Leigh Mills, NTCA head of skills and inclusive economy wrote about why devolution must remain a core part of the government’s plans for growth.
The measures brought forward in the ‘not so mini’ budget highlight a crucial debate for our cities and regions. Most are agreed on the need for economic growth that can sustain future prosperity and public services. But what kind of growth do we need? Who gets to benefit? And, if we can agree on these things, how can we actually make it happen most effectively?
We now have a fresh growth plan – which focuses on accelerating aggregate GDP growth through cutting taxes and trimming the size of the state. Less ‘levelling up’ and more ‘rising tide lifting all boats’. Very different approaches – but both arguably with a sustainability problem. Levelling up is a policy platform carrying a lot of weight; impressive diagnosis, but the scale of intervention has hitherto not matched the rhetoric. By contrast, early growth plan measures have been bold; but they are not yet balanced and risk counteracting the tenets of levelling up on which a nascent cross-party consensus was being built.
Core role for devolution
For any growth plan to work it needs to be grounded in inclusive and sustainable practice. It needs to balance measures to unlock private sector dynamism with a focused approach to human capital and social and physical infrastructure. It needs to take into account the realities of net zero transition, using it as a lever to bring forward new jobs and skills in areas like clean energy and manufacturing. It needs to be resolutely cross sector – recognising that a mix of public, private and social investment is what creates sustainable change in cities, towns and communities.
This is only really brought to life at a local and regional level – which is why devolution must remain a core part of the plan. That is the level at which true cross-sector convening can happen; and the most effective fulcrum point to integrating plans for transport, skills, housing, growth and public service reform. You can see this at play in several city-regions, including up here in the North of Tyne and in places like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.
Those looking for practical examples of progressive, cross-party policy to drive inclusive growth are already spoilt for choice. Most of our mayoral combined authority areas have a version of the ‘good work pledge’ that is already impacting on over 40,000 employees up here in the North of Tyne. Some of us are pushing ahead with ‘anchor’ programmes that align procurement and institutional spend to local benefit. Our devolved skills programmes – centred around adult education and rapid skills-into-jobs transition – are making a difference.
Net zero test case
We balance a proactive and impressive inward investment programme with a commitment to funding innovation in employment support, poverty prevention and good quality housing and high streets. Good jobs, good skills and inclusive growth, with a recognition that unlocking innovation through our universities and catapults is vital to delivering this. Our test case is net zero. With Sunderland hosting Europe’s most productive car plant, the UK’s first two battery gigafactories under construction in the region, and the world’s largest wind farm just off our coast, the wider north-east is at the epicentre of the UK’s low carbon economy.
Maximising this opportunity is a top priority for the combined authority – as demonstrated by our £25m investment in offshore wind, including in sites, infrastructure, innovation, skills and employment routeways. The latest data from the Department for International Trade show the north-east was the country’s leading region for inward investment last year, a position which can be sustained through our emerging low carbon economy investment zone.
The point is, generating growth and prosperity through these industries needs to go hand in hand with building the social and ‘place’ infrastructure that can sustain it over the long term. We need to link cranes with communities and ensure that long-term productivity outlasts a short term sugar rush. Which means we need to be aggressive in our push for growth, prosperity and investment return – but equally so in our mission to turn around the appalling child poverty and health inequality that blights our cities and places.
It takes a true coalition of interests across business, society and public services to build the type of sustainable, inclusive growth that our region’s leaders want to see. It takes clarity of ambition from investors; and a laser-like focus from place leaders on creating the conditions for positive change and quick progress. A look across our region – from Berwick to Southwick – shows this is more than possible. The building blocks are there. Time for this potential to be unlocked.
This blog was first published in the Local Government Chronicle on 17 October 2022