Northern leaders hope to build on green energy to level up

Political and business leaders across the north of England are hoping to persuade the government to work with them to put the green energy revolution at the forefront of levelling up the region and the nation.

They want to maximise the potential of the green energy sector from Blyth to Teesside, from the Humber to the North West, to empower the north to fix its deep-seated social, health and educational problems.

‘Our offer is to work with the [government’s] new Levelling Up Department and the Levelling Up Task Force, to develop an implementation plan for levelling up, which draws on the north’s unique capacity to lead the national transition to net zero’ says a report published today by the Convention of the North and the NP11 group of northern local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).

‘The great opportunity is to link together a health, education, skills and levelling up strategy with a green industrial revolution that will generate jobs and prosperity for the north, whilst helping global Britain go net zero’.

The Convention of the North brings together people from across the North, including businesses, trade unions, elected leaders, and community and faith groups, to speak – it hopes – with one voice on pan-northern issues.

LEPs are business-led partnerships whose purpose is to promote economic growth in their areas. There are 38 LEPs in England including the North East LEP (NELEP) and Tees Valley LEP.

Leading the green industrial revolution is one of five ‘game-changers’ today’s report proposes to level up the north. This will be achieved by harnessing and investing in renewable energy, decarbonising industry, retrofitting housing stock and creating good jobs, according to the report The North’s Levelling Up and Net Zero Partnership Offer.

The other four game-changer objectives are to close the healthy life expectancy gap, improve connectivity in towns and cities, close the education and skills gap, and increase private and public R&D expenditure in the north by £5.7bn.

The northern leaders now want to work with Michael Gove’s new Levelling Up Department and Taskforce to develop an operational plan for delivering levelling up by generating national prosperity through leading the net zero transition.

The Convention plans to meet in January, when it hopes Michael Gove will attend. It will be the third such Convention following one in Gateshead in 2018 and one in Rotherham in 2019, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to ‘do devolution properly’.

Councillor Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council and chair of the Convention, said: ‘The north of England is ready and prepared to play a leading role in driving this country forwards but we need meaningful partnerships with government if we are to succeed.

‘We are asking the government to work with us and equip the north so it can achieve its full potential. Delivering this would truly demonstrate a commitment to levelling up the north.

‘We want to develop skills within our communities, tackle the health inequalities that have been laid bare by the pandemic, attract greater investment into our towns and cities, and lead on the net zero transition. We cannot achieve these goals on our own, and that is why the north is united behind these priorities and this offer to government today.’

COMMENT

The Convention and NP11’s aim of exploiting the north’s growing green energy sector as a basis for levelling up makes sense. It is just two months since this website expressed cautious optimism about the North East’s economic prospects on the basis of its involvement in the green energy revolution.

The other four game-changing objectives in today’s report are also in line with the aims supported here. Three of them – health, education and connectivity – are among measures of progress in this website’s levelling up checklist.

There is reason to be hopeful too in the presence of Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen on the Convention’s steering group. Houchen is a darling of the Conservative Party and is close to Michael Gove. In fact, Gove thinks Houchen is ‘amazing’ as this website noted on October 5.

But the right ideas are one thing; achieving them is another. It is seven years since LEPs were established and set themselves ten-year targets, and earlier this month NELEP published a report which recognised that it was likely to miss at least some of those targets. Now we have a new set of objectives for a wider geography.

Another reason for caution is that success will depend on unity, which is not guaranteed. The Convention presents itself as a powerful unifying voice for the north: ‘We stand more united and aligned in our aims than ever with a renewed focus, sharpened by the experience of the pandemic, on a positive vision to transform our economy’.

This is reminiscent of the first constitution of NECA, the North East Combined Authority, when it was established in 2014 with seven member councils north and south of the Tyne: ‘United in purpose, boldness of vision and determination,’ it boasted. Yet two years later, faced with its most important institutional decision, it split in two along the line of the river, unable to agree to do a devolution deal with the government. And it is possible that the North East will become even more fragmented if Durham County Council decides to do a go-it-alone devolution deal, as it might.

Five years after that NECA decision to reject a deal the Tyneside economy is still divided and NECA remains without devolution. While Durham is thinking about a county deal, as noted above, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland appear inert on this subject, at least in public. None of their leaders is mentioned in today’s report as being on the Convention’s steering committee, though Durham’s new Liberal Democrat leader is, as is North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll.

The report makes clear that the south of Tyne councils cannot remain in this position: ‘The devolution picture now needs to be completed across the north, with mayoral combined authorities or county deals for all those areas not yet covered,’ it says.

Given that clear message by their peers across the north of England, what more do the NECA councils need to persuade them to correct their error of 2016 and do a deal? They should get on with it so they can make the most of whatever opportunities the imminent Levelling Up White Paper offers and play their part in levelling up the north.