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The Policy Ask with Henri Murison: “We need to shrink central government and transfer civil servants to the regions”

The chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership on devolution, HS2 and dealing with the Treasury’s red tape.

By Spotlight

Henri Murison is chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP), an organisation representing business and civic leaders across the North of England. The NPP works with central government, local authorities and the private sector to boost productivity and the economy across the region, with the aim of unlocking up to £100bn in productivity by 2050 and creating 850,000 new jobs. It is chaired by former chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and focuses on areas including skills and education, research and development, and major infrastructure projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2. Prior to his role at the NPP, Murison worked as a Labour councillor at Newcastle City Council, and served as its cabinet member for quality of life.

How do you start your working day?

A morning school run, and then off to wherever I’m going – usually on a train.

What has been your career high?

Securing the right result when Douglas Oakervee’s review decided to save HS2, and not cancel it entirely.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

When I worked in local government in Newcastle, I had to make the case for building more homes. Many of the communities affected opposed them, but the city needed them for those trying to get on and live in their city.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Don’t forget that even in the tough times, it does always work out in the end.

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Which political figure inspires you?

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, for proving how much mayors can achieve and continuing to show their importance to places across the world.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

It’s good to see the devolution agenda getting back on track under the Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, after what could, at best, be described as a patchy few years. Following Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future, carried out for the Labour Party at the end of last year, it now feels like there is genuine momentum behind mayors and local leaders at the moment. This is the thread that ties the whole Northern Powerhouse project – education, skills, transport – together.  

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

This goes deeper than one single policy but the Treasury’s spending rules are a huge drag on the economy, focusing narrowly on meeting an arbitrary debt-to-GDP ratio target rather than a proper long-term vision for growth. Those big, ambitious, economically transformative infrastructure projects like HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail end up getting watered down to cut costs in the short run, meaning we lose out big-time in the long run. Separating out investment from day-to-day spending could be a game changer.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to seeing what Greater Manchester and the West Midlands have secured in their imminent trailblazer devolution deals, and making sure other areas across the North ultimately benefit from similar powers too.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

It’s niche but I’m a big fan of France’s municipal transport tax – I am half-French after all. Versement mobilité, the “mobility payment”, is a ring-fenced payroll tax on employers that pays for regional public transport. More generally, we could learn a lot from other countries when it comes to high-speed rail. The UK is the birthplace of the railways but we’ve fallen behind in recent years, which hasn’t been helped by the endless chopping and changing on HS2. 

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

We should send civil servants from across government on secondment to places which secure devolution – and not replace them. Ultimately, we need to be shrinking central government and transferring the talent from our civil service to the regions.

[See also: Rishi Sunak pledge tracker: Are they being fulfilled?]

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