February and March 2013 may go down as two of the most important months in the economic history of the North East.
Having witnessed Lord Adonis and his team present the initial findings of the Independent North East Economic Review last Friday at The Baltic I’ve got to say the pace of work has been phenomenal – over 1,000 pages of submissions from over 50 organisations all read and analysed within four weeks.Last Friday (February 15) was the opportunity for stakeholders or partners (or whatever the term is now) to hear the key messages and give feedback. There was a strange atmosphere in the room – even though the audience was nearly all from the public sector and the expert speakers were all from out of the region – it really felt as if we were all working together with one objective – to create more and better jobs.
The Review will be published around Easter but judging from the presentations what can we expect?
Firstly we will have a clear set of recommendations on education and skills. It seems clear we have lessons to learn from Scotland and other areas. In particular we need to simplify the system and get more businesses into schools to inspire the next generation about the opportunities here.
Secondly, expect a recognition of our strengths in manufacturing alongside recommendations to help NE businesses gain easier access to complex global supply chains. In this regard it was amazing to hear that we will soon be producing half of all cars made in the UK and we currently have a third of UK pharmaceutical manufacturing here – a huge platform for success.
The transport outcomes will be interesting. The external speakers clearly felt our infrastructure is not a major brake on growth. Indeed some cautioned against new linkages which may actually make it easier for stronger regions to take productive activity out of the region. Nevertheless all recognised that the right improvements will help drive economic success.
A clever professor from the University of Groningen explained how complex supply chains actually work and how NE businesses can and should compete. He also made clear that the City Region is the most successful spatial economic area but beneath and above that are complex patterns of relationships and linkages.
As expected leadership, governance and branding were discussed at length and will likely be centre stage in the Review. Aside from a couple of parochial comments at the event my sense is that the Review is helping to galvanise a common purpose which recognises the need for tough decisions on priorities, which includes pruning back activities that aren’t working.
Planning was also debated, picking up on the themes from an earlier Land and Property workshop in Durham. The expert paper by Professor Overman of the London School of Economics was pretty hard hitting. Namely that in an economically weak region with no shortage of space the planning system must produce more market facing outcomes.
This requires closer working between councils and businesses to bring forward greenfield land which will be developed quickly to create jobs, homes and infrastructure. Prof Overman was clear in separating the great work of the planners in the region from a planning system and policy framework which is currently not set up to support the market in the way it should. Everyone at the workshop agreed that the quick production of growth-focussed local plans and a more positive approach to planning applications was needed.
The last discussion was about monitoring and measuring. When the Review is done there needs to be a clear process for implementing its recommendations and then closely monitoring how it succeeds against its targets. The last thing we need is to start another Review in 10 years’ time addressing the same issues we have now. Only time will tell but one thing is certain – the better we work together the better our prospects are.