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The Northern Powerhouse needs the Leeds City Region at its heart

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21 May 2015

The outcomes of the recent general election have brought many changes to the UK’s political landscape. Yet amid the new faces in the Cabinet and the Commons, one thing remains clear: the Northern Powerhouse is still central to the government’s growth ambitions, and the prize of greater economic freedom and decision-making is there for the taking.

For many, the true nature of this prize still isn’t fully understood. It is evidently, however, an immense opportunity for the North: If the economic performance of the Leeds City Region matched that of the UK, our economy would be nearly a fifth larger; an increase of some £10.5bn on our current £60bn. If our employment rate was also the same as the UK, there would be over 30,000 more jobs in our region. By investing in our region now, we can enable more and better jobs for local people, faster growth for our businesses, and the chance to address finally some of the challenges that have constrained northern prosperity in the past.

The Northern Powerhouse is also an opportunity for our southern neighbours:  building a stronger northern economy that can compete for UK plc alongside London and the South East would give the capital the space to breathe, and address the issues that many years of over-heated growth have caused.

Finally, the Northern Powerhouse is a huge opportunity for the country. If it were an independent state, the North of England would be nudging towards the 20th largest economy in the world. Unlocking the potential of this vast economic area would unleash thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of growth, ensuring the UK remains a globally competitive force for decades to come.

As I’ve long argued, the North is not the problem, it’s the solution. Having set out the “why” we need to address the “what” and “how.” The appointment of a Minister responsible for the Northern Powerhouse is a big step forward and sends a strong message of commitment from government. But we in the North must also step up to ensure our region is shaping the debate in our interests.

In Leeds City Region, we are building real momentum. Government trusts that we can and do deliver extraordinary results, which is why we’ve secured both the funding and – alongside only two other city regions – some of the powers to begin addressing our economic and social priorities. Our model for public-private sector partnership is working – although government can help us go further and faster.

We are working closely with our colleagues at the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to deliver our shared commitment to creating a 21st century infrastructure that enables growth. Major transport projects such as HS2 and HS3 are essential to opening up new jobs, growth and investment opportunities. 30% of the estimated £4.2 billion in economic benefits for the eastern leg of HS2 between London and Leeds comes from the population centres and cities along the route being better connected to each other. However, the extraordinary benefits of these national initiatives will only be realised if we can create a properly connected regional transport network, and have the freedom to invest in those schemes that will best allow us to deliver our growth ambitions.

Having already helped over 2,000 small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) in the region expand and develop, in July the LEP will launch a new growth service to ensure that businesses with big ambitions are able to grow quickly and easily in Leeds City Region. We are also working with local colleges, councils and skills providers to help businesses train and develop their workforce. But we would like more flexibility and resources to put in place the fully responsive business support system our SMEs demand, attract as well as retain talent and create the high-quality employment opportunities that will help our residents forge bright, prosperous futures.

For me, there is a clear message: together we’re stronger. Economic transformation will only be achieved if the public and private sectors continue to pull together around a shared vision for our region’s economic future. Put simply, the LEP must be the glue that binds this partnership approach, ensuring that public money is invested optimally, with proper oversight and accountability, while also applying the skills, commerciality and long-term thinking of business. Equally, the Northern Powerhouse isn’t about one city or city region; it’s about uniting and aligning all our great towns, cities and rural communities in the North to create a unified voice that says loudly and clearly: “we are ready” - ready to roll up our sleeves and work together; ready to transform our economy to regional and national advantage; and ready to ensure the Northern Powerhouse becomes a reality, with our region at its heart.