Adonis's review should galvanise the North East and its neighbours

While the coalition dithers on its growth strategy, the Labour peer has set out precisely the rebalancing the nation needs to recover from the crash.

The launch of the North East Independent Economic Review, chaired by Andrew Adonis, provides further evidence that while the government dithers on economic growth strategy, others are prepared to set out their stalls. First Heseltine, then the Northern Economic Futures Commission and now Adonis all point to the importance of local and regional economies in returning the nation to prosperity.

Adonis sets out a North East vision comprised of "making, trading and exporting" – precisely the rebalancing the nation needs to recover from an economic shock which started in the financial sector but which has had its greatest impact in the north. It calls for the creation of 60,000 private sector jobs and makes clear that the north east has some key competitive advantages to enable that rebalancing and job creation to happen if only opportunities can be unlocked.

The review makes proposals to boost exports and supply chains and co-ordinate inward investment activities through the formation of North East International, it calls for a North East Innovation Board to oversee the development of key innovation centres in life sciences, automotive manufacture and offshore engineering, and it makes the case for a regional business bank and a successor body for the NE JEREMIE, European and social enterprise funds overseen by a NE Investment and Finance Board. In many ways this puts back together again some of the functions that were once carried out by the regional development agency but with a fresh purpose and momentum.

Skills, widely accepted to be critical to driving growth in regions like the North East, also have a key role in the plan with proposals for a North East Schools Challenge, a doubling of the numbers of youth apprenticeships, increasing number of young people in higher education by 1 per cent per annum and a payment-by-results component for local training providers. It also calls for a strategic plan for transport and a NE Infrastructure Fund to fund a series of key priorities including smartcard ticketing, the A1 Western Bypass and A19 developments, and a series of rail improvements including to maximise freight potential. These should be led by a new body: Transport North East.

All of the proposals are sensible and progressive and emphasise what the North East can do for itself if it can now get its act together, establish the Combined Authority it has recently announced, and come up with a delivery plan that turns aspiration into action. Three questions, though, remain.

First, there is the matter of scale. While many measures make sense at the North East level and require the kind of co-ordination that Adonis has proposed, there are a few where the North East will have to work more collaboratively beyond its borders to maximise its potential. On inward investment, innovation and transport in particular, North Eastern activities need to be quickly integrated with activity taking place in Tees Valley but perhaps, more importantly, with other Northern LEPs. For example, Transport North East will only be able to achieve its objectives of faster journey times between key cities if it quickly gets behind plans to decentralise the Northern Rail and Transpennine franchises being organised by the emergent 'Transport for the North' collaboration.

Second, there is central government. Adonis is right not to be too demanding and let Heseltine do the heavy-lifting in this regard, but in most aspects of the review, some central government leniency will be required to allow proposals the freedom – and investment – to really take off. Changes to the national FDI system, University Technical Colleges, locating the British Investment bank in the North East would all be cases in point but long term fiscal autonomy and much greater economic decentralisation must be the wider goals for all Northern LEPs and these will only be achieved with a wider Northern voice.

Finally, there is the question of time. With the Financial Times reporting that places such as Sunderland will be £618 per person worse off than before as a result of welfare changes, one wonders whether any plan of this nature can offset such a hit to the local economy. Clearly there is a very real sense that things can only get worse before they get better, but Adonis and his review team have put together a coherent plan and for now it’s the only game in town.

Ed Cox is director of IPPR North

@edcox_ippr

Labour peer and former transport secretary Andrew Adonis.

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war