Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Henri Murison


NIALL PATERSON: Now Boris Johnson chose to make his first major speech as Prime Minister not in London, where he was once the Mayor of course, but in Manchester. A deliberate move to reach out to voters in an area where the Tories have been losing ground? Joining me now from Bradford is the Director of the Northern Powerhouse, Henri Murison. Mr Murison, thank you so much for being with us. Just in terms of that Prime Ministerial visit to the north earlier this week, do you detect a change in tone from this Conservative government when it comes to support for the Powerhouse?

HENRI MURISON: I think it’s been a remarkable change. For the last three years under Theresa May’s government I think that the progress has probably been most generously described as lacklustre. I think what Boris Johnson announced last week including the funding and a commitment to fund the new line between Leeds and Manchester which we believe should come through the city centre here in Bradford, the great city of Bradford, to really transform and unlock the economic potential that currently isn’t being taken advantage of in the north, is a completely new approach from the government and I think that particularly by putting Jake Berry, appointing those like Rishi Sunak who are strong supporters of northern infrastructure, I think we have also got a team around the Prime Minister who can genuinely deliver, which we didn’t have previous to the change in government.

NP: But does it go far enough? I hear the news this morning that a hundred business leaders from the north are writing to the Prime Minister with one or two suggestions.

HENRI MURISON: Absolutely, so on devolution we’ve been writing today along with John Heaps who is the Chairman of the Yorkshire Building Society where I’m speaking to you from but also business leaders like Jurgen Meyer who runs Siemens, Chris Oglesby who runs Bruntwood, a number of our Chambers of Commerce like the Chief Executive of the Chamber in East Lancashire – these people have all come together to send a clear message along with those who run a lot of our big organisations supporting businesses like our [inaudible] Partnerships, they have all come together here in the north to say that devolution is a key step we need to take because unless we unlock the northern economy, even if we improve the infrastructure, we won’t have the skills and talent that our businesses need. So if you look for instance here in Bradford we don’t have a directly elected Mayor with responsibility for improving services here in Yorkshire, outside of the Sheffield city region. We don’t have that in Cumbria or in Lancashire or further down in Cheshire in the north-west. We need to fix that problem so rather than half the north having a directly elected Mayor, we get to a 100% figure which we believe alongside that investment in infrastructure, we’ll deliver the vision that George Osborne supported and made happen when he was Chancellor and that Jim O’Neill sort of came up with the intellectual ideas he wanted to achieve because although he wanted to bring the north together as a virtual city using that new line which Boris mentioned, we need to make sure that those in Bradford that want the jobs, those talented young people, this is Britain’s youngest city, have got the skills to take jobs whether it be here in organisations like this in financial services or across in Manchester or across in Leeds. At the moment they don’t get the support with skills, we haven’t got that power here in the north to influence the skills system and we also don’t have the infrastructure. We need both of those to happen and I think under Boris Johnson, whatever the people’s views about the wider government’s policies, we do have someone who having been an ex-Mayor, having been the Mayor of London previously, is committed to support that agenda.

NP: Given though the support that you are seeing from Boris Johnson, why is it impossible for these changes to be made at a remove, at a distance from central government rather than through the process of devolution that you’re asking for?

HENRI MURISON: I think the key point is if you want to spend for instance £39 billion building a new railway, I accept that the Treasury and central government might have some role in that. I think the north could play a much bigger role along with the private sector in being trusted to deliver that project in a different way to how we traditionally deliver infrastructure but if you want to for instance improve skills, you can’t do that from a desk in Whitehall and what we’ve seen around the adult education budget for instance which is now being spent by a Tory Mayor in Teesside, by Labour Mayors in places like Liverpool and Greater Manchester, they are doing a much better job with the existing scarce resources so we want to spend more money in the north but I think when Richard Leese who was the leader of Manchester who first pioneered this agenda and still very much part of the team driving forward the Greater Manchester economy, he was really clear that as well as getting that new investment that we need in the north of England to rebalance our economy, it would be pretty silly if we didn’t spend better the money we’ve already got. If you look for instance at how Andy Burnham is challenging and improving transport in Greater Manchester, he is building the B-Lines, a network of cycle lanes, he is not just doing what maybe somebody in Whitehall would do and the response to that from communities, from businesses, is actually we think we’re getting better decisions through our directly elected Mayors and unfortunately at the moment places like here in Bradford are missing out despite the fact that this is one of those places that if we don’t take advantage of it, the UK won’t succeed whatever happens with Brexit, never mind the north of England. This is in the national interest so I also believe that for instance in other parts of the country devolution could play a bigger role and I’ve also been an admirer of Andy Street in the West Midlands who is doing a great job with his economy. So the north is obviously the place where there are 50 million people, where the government can make the biggest difference but I also think that the decentralisation of power, moving away from a Whitehall machine which is fundamentally broken in terms of making the right investments for our country, is the only way we are going to move forward as a country and it’s the only way that we are going to tackle that underlying productivity gap because we know that making poor decisions from Whitehall is one of the reasons why outside of London and the south-east we don’t see the type of economy that we will need to have if we are going to succeed in the global race.

NP: How convinced then are you of the merits of HS2?

HENRI MURISON: I think we would be absolute supporters of HS2 and I think the northern business leaders who have written this letter have also on many occasions lobbied for that and I hope that Claire Fox gets some difficult questions from you. I think their only policy is a no deal Brexit and cancelling HS2 from the Brexit Party and as they want to win votes in the north of England I think their economic decision making and rationale is pretty appalling. I think what we would say about HS2 is that it’s more valuable because it would be linked to Northern Powerhouse Rail so the train line that the Prime Minister backed last week between Leeds and Manchester, that is part of the wider network to get you from Newcastle to Manchester Airport, from Hull to Liverpool. That wider network, when you plug it in HS2, will really rebalance the economy and I think that that challenge that we want people to get around the north of England for jobs, we also want to be able to bring in talent from slightly further afield and [I hope] people will go to Birmingham. If you live in the north of England, in Leeds or Bradford, it is almost impossible other than by getting in a car to go to places like Birmingham, the transport networks to get around and between our regions are absolutely appalling. So in this part of the world where we haven’t built a new railway east to west since the Victorians, I think it’s perfectly right that the country builds a new line for instance from Leeds to Birmingham and on to London, a new line from Manchester to Birmingham and a new line between Leeds and Manchester, because if we do that we will get those really transformative economic benefits and a concern for me is despite the National Infrastructure Commission saying we can afford both, we can also actually afford Crossrail 2 if you do both those projects within 1.2% of GDP. There are some people out there saying you have to choose between young people for instance being able to get from Bradford to Manchester to work or people from Leeds and Bradford being able to get to London or Birmingham, having the capacity we need on that HS2 network. I don't think anyone in London had to choose between building the new rail line to Paris, the Channel Tunnel rail link, HS1 to give it its proper title or building Crossrail which I think when it opens will demonstrate the real value for money that it will bring for London taxpayers who have partly contributed along with government to make that scheme happen. I believe that in the north of England we deserve both, we deserve the ability to be able to get people to work reliably and quickly and we deserve better connections to the rest of the country and I think when the government review of HS2 has been concluded, I think if we can get a delivery model that integrates HS2 and building Northern Powerhouse Rail together we will be able to save money but we will also be able to demonstrate with that combined network actually it will be more valuable than doing either HS2 or Northern Powerhouse Rail on its own. I think by building both projects we’ll deliver the vision that George Osborne has which is that connectivity can really unlock that growth.

NP: Henri Murison, many thanks for joining us.