The new Northern Powerhouse Partnership Programme


Graham Robb, Senior Partner , NE Chair IoD



There a very few idea of any Government that are opposed by only 20% of the population. Yet when my firm commissioned the opinion pollster Panelbase to ask about the Northern Powerhouse that is the small number who had a negative view of it. Over 30% had a positive view and the rest were neutral.

The public are open minded, want to know more and are ready to get behind the concept.

We mustn’t waste this opportunity. To have the public behind something is a wonderful thing. But they will want ideas turned into action and quickly. They general public are as fickle as they are sensible.

I know having met Ministers that they understand we in business are serious about better transport. We are serious about meaningful devolution. We like it when they talk about rebalancing the economy to place more importance on our great exporters and brilliant manufacturers. They also know we are unimpeachably proud Northerners when it comes to the modernity and diversity of our new economy businesses, scientific research, creativity and cultural offering.

Peopler still ask ‘what is the Northern Powerhouse?’ I tend to answer that it is a stool with four legs: big transport connectivity between cities; devolved power to areas that come together and agree to an elected Mayor; a massive push by UKTI to support Northern exporters; and the promotion of our culture and heritage. The last point needs to be given an extra shove as it is a factor in making the North ‘cool’ which is critical in order to keep our young talented people from relocating.

In business we know that ideas take time to progress from the business plan to bottom line profit. Unfortunately the same is true in Government – however with all Governments, bureaucrat time seems to move slower than real time. While we are waiting business needs to fill the vacuum.

Last year my home area suffered a grievous economic blow with the closure of the SSI steelworks. The anger and sadness of the local community is palpable – 2915 people were affected both from the Redcar blast furnace site and the long supply chain.

However just over seven short months have passed and the task force – made up of local employers and community leaders, support by Government funds - has made a tremendous start at finding people alternative employment.  1474 people have moved off benefit into full time work or training, 903 jobs were created or safeguarded as a result of targeted money and 50 apprentices maintained their apprenticeships. Furthermore, 302 people were given advice on business start-ups from which 95 business have been started.

This is substantial. But yet more is needed.

The Heseltine report published two weeks ago has urged further work, it acknowledges the opportunities the Tees Valley offers to the wider North. A new South Tees Development Corporation, the only such body outside London, has been formed. It will be led by the new Mayor using his or her devolved powers. It has already met in shadow form with some of area’s business leadership, myself included, on its board. It draws together people with different areas of expertise – planning, property, construction, engineering, PR, the University and all the local authorities – and the individuals are committed to its success. The new Development Corporation wants and expects to get powers and resources to tackle the redevelopment of a massive industrial site and to work with communities to implement the exciting and ambitious report published by Lord Heseltine.

All of this is the substance not the spin of the Northern Powerhouse; devolution will be used as a spur for rejuvenation. Money will be spent locally, targeted on specific things that tackle distinct local challenges.

Teesside can demonstrate Northern Powerhouse partnership in action. The chairman of newly promoted Middlesbrough FC is on the same development board as the chairman of the IoD and shares responsibility with other businesses and council leaders. I have seen organisations like the local building society holding advice sessions to ensure people don’t lose their homes and other manufacturing business take on staff an apprentices in order plug the gaps.

It is a shame that Teesside got to test out some of the Northern Powerhouse theories in adversity but the response to the end of SSI has proved that given power, resources and responsibility, people will take care to deliver.

Business needs to adopt the same partnership approach in the wider North and play its part in making the Northern Powerhouse a success. Governments sometimes wane in their enthusiasm for big projects – I remember the Citizens’ Charter under John Major! A new Northern Powerhouse Partnership Programme has been established. Business should sign up in order to keep our Government on the right track.

By adopting the Northern Powerhouse theme, we can start to speak to other parts of the world with a stronger voice that demonstrates the things that are possible outside the overcrowded, expensive, London market. In every part of the North private business, local authorities and voluntary organisations can champion our successes, innovations and our unique heritage.

In my professional life my firm promotes some of the most important redevelopment projects in the Northern Powerhouse; Airport City Manchester, the development of the former Passport Agency office in Durham, the development of the former Black and Decker site in the North East – all should be considered and branded as ‘Building the Northern Powerhouse.’ Some of these involve Government support, others are exclusively private sector projects.

The new Partnership programme gives business the opportunity to work together on this project.

I’m pleased to say that in the North East we now have some early adopters: Newcastle Airport, PD Ports on the River Tees, Carillion Plc, venture capitalists Rivers Capital Partners, the North East’s Entrepreneurs’ Forum have given provisional agreement to be in first tranche of Northern Powerhouse Partner organisations.

I’m confident that the Partnership programme is an excellent way of extending the ownership of this project beyond the politicians and into the wider North of England. It is something I enthusiastically endorse.


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