Next year’s election of Manchester’s mayor will be a “really key moment” for the Northern Powerhouse project as the city chooses a figurehead to drive its devolution agenda.
Addressing our latest Vital Topics lecture, James Wharton MP, Minister for Local Growth and the Northern Powerhouse, said it was the residents of Manchester who were best placed to make decisions about the city and that electing a mayor was an essential part of ensuring the wider accountability of the devolution drive.
He added: “The mayor will also be an important figurehead. If I want to open a business in Manchester then I need to know who to speak to. The mayoral model is also recognised across the world as a vehicle for engaging with government.”
As other cities such as Liverpool and Sheffield sign up for devolution, Mr Wharton said devolution was “an ever progressing and evolving process” but that Manchester was ahead of the game. “This is an exciting opportunity partly because it is an organic process. It is not about me coming with an identikit stamp and saying this is what devolution should look like. This could be transformational but will only work if driven by those affected. This is ours to own and make a success.”
Mr Wharton said that the government had taken this flexible approach to other cities too. “We have said ‘tell us what the geography is, tell us what powers you want, tell us the pace at which you want to go’. But no area is compelled to accept or enter into a devolution deal.”
He said the primary focus of devolution must be to boost economic growth, citing the fact that the North had underperformed against the national economy for more than a generation. “If the Northern Powerhouse grows at just the average rate of the wider economy it will add £40bn a year. The key way to unlock the potential of this region is to increase economic growth.”
Meanwhile he added that the Powerhouse was catching the eye of global investors. He cited how within hours of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Manchester last year another “very significant country” requested a meeting with him. “They asked me ‘why is this just for China?’ when of course it isn’t.”
After his lecture a Q&A session was facilitated by Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President & Vice Chancellor of the University of Manchester. She asked the Minister what the role of universities was within the Northern Powerhouse.
He replied that universities were an important gateway to skilled people and a great shop-window for the North, while they also had a key role to play in terms of engagement with the commercial world. “If this is going to work we need skilled people and we need them to stay,” he added.
Asked whether there was actual substance behind the entire project, he added that there were a lot of tangible things already happening in the region such as new investment in the rail network.
Meanwhile Mr Wharton, who said he would be supporting the Leave campaign in the pending EU referendum, said regardless of the outcome of the EU vote the Northern Powerhouse agenda would continue.