North East business leaders are calling on the Conservative Party leadership contenders to pledge investment in skills, public transport and public services, progress with devolution and delivery on levelling up.
They want help with training, more funding for further education, and a reduction in child poverty.
John McCabe, chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce (NEECC), the region’s largest business organisation, has written to leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak setting out the organisation’s priorities for levelling up business, people and places.
Business, he writes, wants frictionless international trade: ‘Commitment to clarity on the legislation and trade processes with the island of Ireland will be welcome, with an overriding focus on stability and the avoidance of undue risk.’
It wants public services like housing, health and education to be safeguarded: ‘It is imperative that any tax cutting agenda in no way undermines the resilience of public services, especially as we recover from the pandemic. Members tell us repeatedly that reductions in public services have a direct impact on their business efficiency and productivity.
‘Any proposed tax cuts must not harm investment in the organisations which, as evidenced by the Levelling Up White Paper, play such a central role in the economic success of the North East.’
For people, the Chamber wants help for employers with training costs, training-related tax breaks and increased funding for further education. The government’s Net Zero ambitions are seen as one means to achieve this, enabling the North East to build on its strong energy sector and create a local skills strategy with a clear focus on green jobs.
With the region having the highest rate of child poverty in the country, the Chamber wants action to tackle the cost of living crisis and protect households from the pressures of inflation, energy costs and basics like food to be a priority.
For places, the Chamber wants increased transport investment in the East Coast Main Line and Northern Powerhouse Rail and commitments to bus service improvements, the new Tyne & Wear Metro fleet and Teesside Freeport.
‘Underpinning all of this’ writes Mr McCabe, ‘must be redoubled commitment to sustain the progress made on devolution in both the south and the north of the region. The Tees Valley Mayoral Combined Authority continues to demonstrate how much can be achieved when places are given the autonomy, powers and resources to shape their futures.
‘Prior to this leadership contest leaders from across Tyne & Wear and Northumberland had delivered the ambitions of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper with significant progress on a new [devolution] settlement. It is incumbent on the new national leadership to ensure that no further time is lost and government takes all necessary steps to back a deal fit for our region. You will have the full and vocal backing of the business community in the North East to achieve this.’
With its call for the safeguarding of public services and its warning against a tax cutting agenda that could undermine the resilience of those services, Mr McCabe’s letter seems more compatible with Rishi Sunak’s campaign pledges than Liz Truss’s, as reported here today.
The Chamber’s plea for stability and the avoidance of undue risk in trade relations with the island of Ireland sounds like a warning over the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill being piloted through Parliament by Ms Truss.
Finally, it is good, but hardly surprising, to know that the business community supports a new North East devolution deal. Presumably council leaders do as well, as they are said to have made significant progress. But the public still does not really know because they are still not saying. In 2015 they made sufficient progress to sign a deal, only to repudiate it 11 months later.