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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.