CITIES AND BUSINESS: SHAPING THE FUTURE TOGETHER
Calls for further devolution to city-regions dominated a heavy-hitting second day at the International Business Festival in Liverpool.
Delegates packed the Futures Stage to hear first from five English regional metro mayors, before Lord Heseltine returned to the city where he led regeneration efforts in the 1980s to criticise government for allowing devolution to "grind to a halt".
London Mayor Sadiq Khan delivered a keynote in which he urged business to join city-region leaders in pressing for more devolution. Referring to the ongoing rail disruption across northern England, he said the government should give ministers accountability for buses and trains.
"There's no need for nationalisation," he said. "We can strip franchises from companies. These guys [his fellow mayors] could be accountable rather than civil servants in the Department for Transport."
At a meeting ahead of his speech, Mr Khan and the regional leaders agreed to lobby ministers to hand over control of funds raised via the Apprenticeship Levy.
"We need people in our cities, particularly young people, to access the best training in the world so they can access the jobs of tomorrow," he said. "Businesses need people with the right skills to carry on growing."
And he urged delegates: "Join us in our efforts to lobby government."
Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram, who joined Mr Khan on stage, insisted that it wasn't about "power for power's sake".
"We won't create jobs ourselves but if we can provide the conditions in which businesses feel they can come and invest, that's how you create growth," he said. "We know business, we are the voice of business in our areas and we want to work with business."
He added that more powers could allow regional leaders to help solve the UK's current housing crisis. He said he was prepared to support decontamination of land in the Liverpool region to clear the way for developers to build new homes.
Asked about Brexit by panel host and Liverpool University vice-chancellor Dame Janet Beer, Mr Khan pointed to the current US administration's protectionist stance on trade as evidence that those who had pinned their hopes on a revitalised trans-Atlantic relationship would be disappointed.
"That's why this Festival is so important," he said. "You've got visitors coming to Liverpool for the first time who will see what a beautiful city she is, with great links. They will think about coming and doing business here."
During the morning session of a day focused around Urbanisation & Cities, Lord Heseltine had blamed Brexit for causing the devolution process to "run out of steam".
“The irony is the reality that, whilst claiming Brexit will restore power to this country, the process of devolving power from London to the economic powerhouses of our country has ground to a halt.
“The single pot of £2bn a year over five years is now nearly half-way through. For the process to continue the planning for these largely capital projects needs to start now."
While the process in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, the Liverpool Region and Tees Valley had coherence, he said progress in other areas was either partial or virtually non-existent,
"Contribution from each of our important cities and counties is essential as we fight our corner in an ever more competitive world," he added.
During the metro mayors' debate on 'Doing Business in a Global Market', Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said: "Westminster created the north/south divide by decades of differential treatment, under all governments, and therefore Westminster created Brexit because that was where the seeds of regional imbalance – the sense that Westminster and Brussels works better for some places than it does for others -- began.
"This is where the turbulent politics of our times has come from, a sense that our country doesn’t quite work fairly for everybody. Westminster by definition can’t be the only answer to Brexit – that you just take all the power back and you carry on as you were with this over-centralised system.
"This has to be a moment of profound change, of deep devolution. It’s about place not party and therefore a better space for everybody to come together and build something better.”
Metro Mayor Rotheram will speak at the Festival again tomorrow, talking about harnessing the power of the River Mersey on a day focused on Sustainable Energy.
Host Mark Shayler will guide speakers such as Jacqui Murray, from the Faraday Challenge, Ørsted MD Matthew Wright and Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey through topics such as The Energy of the Future and Disruption for a Cleaner, Greener World.
Images: Ant Clausen/ACC Liverpool