Today I met with colleagues from VCSE infrastructure organisations across the North to consider the first report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) and whether we wanted to create a collective sector voice to influence the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and other bodies. It was a varied and wide ranging discussion, and although we didn't agree on everything there was certainly some coherent commonalities on which to build.
But firstly, what is the Northern Powerhouse Partnership?
I quote from their first report which sets out four key areas of focus for the North to achieve its potential and address the key challenge of productivity;
"The Northern Powerhouse Partnership exists to increase the impact and contribution of the North of England to the UK economy by bringing individual cities and counties closer together, so that the whole of the North has greater economic input than its separate parts."
It’s governed by a business-led board with additional representation from prominent city leaders across the North (but none from the NE) and other representatives from the university sector and Transport for the North. So my first questions were - where is the North East and where is the VCSE?
Essentially what the report sets out is an economic growth strategy for the North, and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership appears to be a super-LEP like board for the North albeit more like a think-tank rather than a delivery structure. When you read the report you’re likely to agree with me that it’s very North West focused. My concern is this will continue to be the case unless they supplement their current board membership. I expressed this concern at the meeting and I will be asking questions locally about why the NE hasn't taken up the opportunity to be involved.
The four key areas of focus to support economic growth in the North are:
- Education and Skills
- Infrastructure and assets (transport, energy, water, digital, innovation)
- International Competitiveness (focusing on four prime capabilities; energy, health innovation, advanced manufacturing and materials, digital)
- Leadership and Learning - greater devolution and decision making in the North of England.
The collective response from all present was mainly dismay in the lack of any mention of inclusive growth within this economic growth framework. This reflects many of our local struggles with LEPs to meaningfully include this in their local Strategic Economic Plans, linked to a reminder that economics is about cost-reduction as well as economic growth. Resilient communities are less dependent on public services and addressing social inequalities also has a meaningful impact on productivity.
We also discussed the challenges of bringing together a collective of LEPs and Combined Authorities to drive economic growth in the North in the context of LEP/ Combined Authority areas competing for funding, inward investment, skilled workers etc. I was mindful the four prime capabilities in the NPP document mirror those in the refreshed NELEP Strategic Economic Plan. Commonalities are good but how does collaboration sit within this competitive environment?
We were also concerned about the focus on the urban considering the significant rural aspect of the North (and the specific economic challenges rural areas face) and the likelihood of market towns and areas not included in Devolution agreements being left behind if the Northern Powerhouse collective voice (predominately led by the urban, devolution-heavy North West) takes off.
Plenty of consideration was given as to whether the VCSE sector should be demanding a seat at the NPP table, and what needs to be done for them to acknowledge the sector as an economic entity as significant employer and producer of GDP as well as the economic value and impact attached to our work in terms of supporting volunteers/ carers etc. In addition, an acknowledgement that the VCSE often reaches those individuals and communities facing the most complex barriers to economic inclusion. We agreed the biggest area of overlap was their focus on education and skills but rather than simply putting forward the importance and impact of the VCSE in this space, we decided a more robust approach might be required.
Such an approach might include developing an alternative growth strategy for the North; an inclusive community-led growth approach, providing the data and the narrative about how this approach has a breadth of impact across society that trickle-down economics has failed to deliver.
As the conversation drew to an end, collectively we agreed a common voice for the VCSE in the North could be powerful agent for change but that we would need to take an approach that could benefit social leadership at a local level that could then be aggregated up to a Northern level. We spoke about who and what we might also want to influence in the ever changing political, economic and social environment. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership is in its infancy and who knows how it will play out and what influence it will assert on national policy and spending?
Outside of economic growth, we agreed the replacement of ESIF and in particular ESF funding in the North was a key and pressing issue and as a collective we could also potentially better influence mayoral candidates in devolved areas, national politicians and even national (and generally London centric) VCSE bodies such as NCVO and charitable foundations to do more for the North.
Today was very much an initial conversation to explore the appetite for working together as the North for the benefit of the sector and the communities we serve. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership's focus on "the economic and social benefits of lifting the 15 million people (living in the North) to the same performance of London and the surrounding area is clear". We don't dispute that, and feel the VCSE has a clear part to play but we want to set out our own stall rather than just responding to theirs.
Watch out, the North is coming!
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