Thursday, September 09, 2021

Live blog - New Statesman conference - Regional Development in the Age of Levelling Up

I'm live blogging today from the New Statesman conference. Opening proceedings is the impressive Michael Heseltine with a keynote address. 

Highlight: He opened by saying how much he regretted getting rid of Metropolitan County Councils in 1986, but praised Greater Manchester's leaders for keeping the practice of them, in the absence of the structure. Manchester too is an example of what real devolution can achieve. He also reminded us that the ambition to reduce the number of councillors and the blockages of local government remains a pressing agenda. He was fairly optimistic and generous about Boris Johnson's recent speech on devolution because it reflects the need for better leadership locally. He ended his formal talk on a more pessimistic note, believing the White Paper on regional devolution is too late to be passed into policy in this parliament. In answer to a question from the audience, he bemoaned the ineffectiveness of business organisations, a subject that has long frustrated me, and how that has impacted the reality of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

A fireside chat with Baroness Verma and Tom Forth from the Open Data Institute highlighted how important digital inclusion is to so many other agendas. I always like Tom's contributions to events and he makes lively observations of everyday life that really bring subjects to life. This time it was about kids jumping on bus company wifi, highlighting the power that comes from access to a scarce resource.

The most impressive and well-articulated contribution to the panel discussion on levelling up was by Lisa Nandy MP. I have heard her before making the same point about how much devolution effort effectively is about getting kids in Wigan better access to the assumed riches in Manchester city centre. Henri Murison from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said in response that his priority is working to bring high paid jobs to places like Lisa's community, but none of that can happen without the success of a core city (like Manchester). She also made a powerful point about how the social richness and social capital of places is underestimated and misunderstood; their level of ambition isn't matched by government, something we talk about a lot in the People's Powerhouse.

You can't have a regional development conference without a discussion about transport. The talk pivoted around the 'car-based recovery' and the challenge of policy to find another way to get people around. EV charging infrastructure also seems a bit of a mess, patterns of funding aren't clear, with little recognition of how few people can access home charging. My head was turned by hydrogen fuel as a result of working with the team at Manchester Met, a sensible way to fuel buses is a gateway fuel, but I'm disappointed at the lack of knowledge on hydrogen cars amongst policy experts.

Innovation investment starts from the premise that the golden triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London is a good thing and that we, therefore, need more of them. I took from a pacey and rushed discussion with Lord Bethell that there is more going on in the NHS and in private industry than is possibly given credit. Seamus O'Neill from the Northern Health Science Alliance made the point that the long term commitment to a life sciences cluster in the North requires big system thinking, and its importance can be part of how society matches challenges like global warming, anti-microbial resistance as well as how future viruses can be tackled. 

A common policy theme is how industrial and economic solutions to wider societal issues can solve two problems at once - giving a new sense of purpose and prosperity to a place, but making sure we can quickly reduce carbon and improve health outcomes. Gillian Keegan MP and Henri Murison mentioned this, with Henri making a strong case for Metro Mayors having the resources and levers to deliver skills and investment in their areas. Returning to the theme of sustainable developments, and that lack of joined-up thinking, she cited the failure to harness incentives to create a solar industry a decade ago.

After lunch, the discussion pivoted towards future devolution with a thinker each from both sides of the House, Devolution and Constitution Minister Chloe Smith MP for the Conservatives and Ian Murray MP for Labour. The latter made the point that Levelling Up was pretty thin and not much more than a slogan. Smith made some attempt to define levelling up as spreading opportunity for everyone, not hugely convincingly, or assuaging Heseltine's fear that the timing has slipped. Murray says the English question is now urgent, but that his job is to make it central to Labour's future offer. Obviously, Smith pushed back by saying the government is doing a number of things through the Community Renewal Fund, City Growth Deals, Towns Fund promoting alternative land use, Shared Prosperity Fund as a successor to European Funds, and of course, Levelling Up Funds. All of which adds up to change that people will benefit from, she says.  Here's the issue though, without fiscal devolution it feels like it's all just delegation with strings attached. 

That the pandemic has shone a light on health inequalities, as all the panellists on the next topic agreed, is obvious. But as an earlier speaker pointed out, health outcomes are governed far more by the economic quality of the lives people lead than their local NHS and care services. Both Debbie Abrahams MP (Labour) and Lisa Cameron MP (SNP) were pretty disappointed with the Social Care plan they voted against in parliament yesterday, partly said Abrahams, because of widespread misunderstanding of what public health actually is. Professor Graham Lord from the University of Manchester says the same pushing of resources through the same bodies, local government and public health, and expecting a different outcome won't work. 

The delicate world of running a rural region was put into sharp focus by Cllr Rosemarie Harris, the independent leader of Powys County Council and by the Labour Metro Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Nik Johnson, who admitted he had the advantage of a world-class university, which she did not, nor indeed any HE institution at all. However, it is the potential of an industrially focused institution like Anglia Ruskin in Peterborough that excited him as playing an important partnership with businesses in agri-tech, he said. Powys covers 25% of Wales but has no university, she puts her efforts into working with partners in the neighbouring English county councils and both the Welsh Assembly Government and Westminster. Here's a thought though rural areas have heavier car use, carbon-emitting rural practices, water table damage and it can be very hard to tackle environmental targets. 

My final panel of the day was a lively bounce around skills and development. It's probably an iron rule of policy events that any such discussion has to at some point talk about Germany, but as Toby Perkins MP pointed out if you don't have a German-style economy and deep business engagement in policy, you can't just wish a new system into being. Sellafield's Jamie Reed (an ex MP) said addressing regional inequalities still has to recognise that capital is still hypermobile and places have to be competitive. 

So, that's a wrap. It was a good day to get out and meet people in person again. The New Statesman is on a real roll at the moment. This was a highly impressive conference, way better than their last one in Manchester before the pandemic. I liked how they managed to successfully blend speakers over Zoom with those on the actual stage. I expected far more of them to be remote, including big hitters like Michael Heseltine and Lisa Nandy, who it was good to see in person and working the audience effectively in ways you can’t do through a screen.  

The new redesign of the magazine is very classy and makes huge aesthetic sense. It seems much more in keeping with the literary and intellectual style of the product. The driver for it, as editor Jason Cowley explained, is to work across print and digital more effectively and push the expansion of The New Statesman internationally.  

If I’m being hyper critical, the caricatured bylines of the authors haven’t landed on me yet, but then I have probably just got very comfortable with how they were. Designers know what they are doing with this stuff and I'm sure it will all grow on me, but as ever it's a very well-curated and intelligent experience wherever it lands, and as we discovered today, in the live setting too. 

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