Penrillian CEO Joanne Thompson
Richard Bell

North West views: Penrillian CEO Joanne Thompson 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 Joanne Thompson, the CEO of Penrith-based software company Penrillian.

What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?

It is about empowering businesses and organisations based in the North to create government, transport and business infrastructures, which can begin to rebalance the North/South divide. For too long London has had a virtual monopoly on Government attention and the lion’s share of funding, meaning that economic wealth and talent has been continually skewed towards the capital.

As an example if we look at transport, the inequity is clear: London gets £3,000 per head of population spent on transport, in the North West it equates to £460 and in the North East it is only £263. This inequality is not just evident in transport, it is reflected elsewhere in government spending.

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

It was clear at last month’s Northern Powerhouse conference in Manchester that progress is being made, and has gained some recent momentum. It has now built up the political and business support to drive it forward and has paved the way for devolution of powers and funds to Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool city and the North East regions via elected mayors.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Northern Powerhouse is in creating a platform that has brought together the civic and business leaders throughout the North of England and encouraging them to work together rather than compete by default.

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

The commitment is there, but there is a real need for the North itself to grasp the opportunity to drive home the intended objectives and strategy of the Northern Powerhouse, rather than wait for central government to lead the way.

One solution to drive the strategy of the Northern Powerhouse would be to appoint a regional council to agree and then oversee the execution of our strategy to make the ambitions a tangible reality.

Such a regional council would need to be established to ensure a suitable cross-section of members were appointed, to be truly representative of the North and active in leading the tactical execution of the strategy. It would be really important to ensure that the public did not view such a council as “jobs for the boys”, or comprised of “the usual suspects”.

For example, SMEs make up 99.9% of businesses in the UK and are hugely under-represented. There were high numbers of SMEs attending the Northern Powerhouse conference, but it was representatives from large businesses that were on stage.

Andy Clarke, chief executive of ASDA, picked up on this and talked about how, in his experience, innovation tends to come from the smaller businesses rather than the larger ones.

Having a strong SME presence on a regional Northern Powerhouse council would go a long way in ensuring its effectiveness in generating economic growth from the areas best positioned to deliver it.

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

It is clear that investment in infrastructure is needed across all transport networks throughout the North, but it is not just about boosting capacity and cutting journey times.

We also need to ensure that we provide joined up connectivity; one of the key objectives of the policy group Transport for the North. This aims to make it easier for passengers in the North to travel seamlessly across the country, using multiple modes of public transport using a single smart ticket to deliver the quickest and cheapest journey. This already exists in the rail settlement system, but Transport for the North needs to extend this capability to all modes of transport.

Integration across light rail, buses, ferries or rail via a single ticket is a hugely difficult task to achieve, but is by no means impossible and the benefits to the North are critical to the success of the Northern Powerhouse.

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

The skills gap is a real problem throughout the North, as talent has often headed south for work. Our rural location in Penrith can mean that we struggle to find the right software development talent.

The skills gap in the technology sector is well documented, but the Northern Powerhouse provides a huge opportunity to address this by training, then aligning the skills of our labour market with the needs of the Northern economy, with particular attention focused on growth areas like technology.

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?

For the Northern Powerhouse to really flourish it needs to focus on the whole of the North and not just its major cities such as Manchester.

It is imperative that the business support reaches out beyond the major Northern cities and it is embraced throughout the North including the untapped potential in rural areas.

However, there does need to be an appetite to engage and participate from areas outside of Manchester and other major cities. We must not wait to be invited to the party – we need to turn up and contribute.

Representation on a regional council for those in rural locations alongside those from major cities could help to address the imbalance and to ensure that the whole of the North pulls together to deliver economic prosperity and to speak with one voice.

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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