John Jones, partner and head of corporate finance at the Manchester and Blackburn offices of Beever
Richard Bell

North West views: Beever and Struthers’ John Jones on the Northern Powerhouse

With the government’s vision of creating a Northern Powerhouse commanding the attention of the North West business community, particularly in the wake of the UK Northern Powerhouse International Conference & Exhibition, at Bdaily we’ve decided to run a new series of interviews to establish just what the region’s business leaders think of the plans.

Is the North West set for an overhaul in the coming years - one to turn the region into a true example of economic empowerment through business growth, job creation and prosperity?

Today we caught up with John Jones, partner and head of corporate finance at the Manchester and Blackburn offices of Beever and Struthers, the accountancy and business advisory firm.

What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?

This is a phrase that is now embedded in the hearts and minds of the region, although there is some uncertainty as to what it actually means.

Many people, in the regions at least, felt that something needed to be done to address the imbalance between the London-centric, relatively affluent South East and the rest of the country.

Recognising that the cities of the North each had their own strengths but could be better positioned to compete effectively on an increasingly global basis if those individual strengths could be harnessed to work together, the Northern Powerhouse has come to represent this concept that the collective whole of the Northern cities could be greater than the sum of the individual parts and act as an effective counter-balance to London.

Are there signs of the Northern Powerhouse starting to bear fruit in the region?

Many people feel there’s been lots of sound-bites but little action to back them up so far. The most positive aspect is that people are still talking about it two years since it was first mentioned. Any public policy, and particularly one that is predicated upon long-term objectives such as connectivity, infrastructure, investment in skills etc is going to take some time to really bear fruit, but there is little sign so far that enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse is beginning to wane.

There appears to be progress in the collaboration between cities in the North on issues such as the imperative for improved transport connectivity, and there’s no doubt that the Northern Powerhouse concept has proven a significant brand message for marketing the North on the international stage.

Has the government done enough to convince you of its commitment to Osborne’s vision?

The Northern Powerhouse concept received almost universal acclaim when first put forward and the key now is for there to be significant action to back up the rhetoric. At the moment there appears to have been a focus on longer-term strategic investment priorities such as HS2, which are key drivers of other changes, but are on such a distant timescale that they can feel disconnected from the issues people and businesses are facing today.

It’s important for the government to look for some quick-wins, focussing on priorities that could make the biggest difference in the short-term, in order to maintain the enthusiasm and momentum for the Northern Powerhouse project.

Transport improvement is intrinsic to the Northern Powerhouse. Do you believe that spending billions of infrastructure will improve Northern productivity?

There’s no doubt that issues around transport links, connectivity and infrastructure are a massive challenge faced daily across the North West. Improving these has to be a central plank of any policy to boost the region. Congested roads and over-crowded trains impact negatively on productivity and the attractiveness of the region for inward investment from overseas and businesses looking to relocate within the United Kingdom.

These are expensive and complex issues that cannot be solved overnight, and inevitably cause more disruption and delay whilst they are being fixed. But this is investment that most people believe will ultimately have a tangible impact. Whilst we are talking about billions of pounds of investment, the level of infrastructure investment in the North West is significantly below that in London.

Are there any other areas which you believe money should be spent on, ahead of transport?

Alongside the money spent on transport projects there needs to investment in science, innovation and skills. There are some great universities in the region and they are doing a fantastic job in attracting a broad student base but there is still a disconnect between business and the schools, colleges and universities in terms of the skills industry is looking for.

There are currently below average rates of early attainment and a shortage of people with level three qualifications and above, so there needs to be more investment into up-skilling the workforce and aligning the skills of the labour market and the needs of business.

Investment in digital connectivity is the other priority as the businesses of the future will inevitably be based around technology and competing globally due to the power and reach of the internet.

While Manchester is a key city in the government’s vision, do you think enough is being done to cater for other important North West towns and cities?

It’s really important that the Northern Powerhouse develops across the whole region and is not just focussed on Manchester. Of course it’s inevitable that there is a lot of attention focused on Manchester due to the successful, pragmatic approach of the ten local authorities there who through the combined authority were already pioneering the idea of working together for the greater good of the larger whole.

But the Northern Powerhouse cannot work if it is a question of Manchester succeeding at the expense of all the other cities. It’s not just the cities that are of concern too, there’s also a vast array of sizeable towns across the region that each need to figure in the policy-making. At the moment the political leaders are speaking as one in recognising this, but only time will tell whether this comes to fruition.

For all our latest Northern Powerhouse news and views, click here. Share your views and get involved with our latest interview series by contacting North West editor Richard at richard.bell@bdaily.co.uk.

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