The Manchester metro mayor said the region could be a ‘centre of excellence’ for the green economy, creating jobs in wind and hydrogen energy and insulating homes.
He added: “This is our moment. The Northern Powerhouse vision is ebbing away. Levelling up is more shallow-rooted…we mustn’t downgrade our ambitions now.”
He was one of five Labour metro mayors - Andy Burnham, Dan Jarvis, Tracy Brabin, Steve Rotheram and Jamie Driscoll - and former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, who discussed the Budget, the need for government to keep its promises - especially on transport - the advantages of unity, the need for more local powers and money, and opportunities from the race to net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
The third Great Northern Conference, at the Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, was organised by jpimedia and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and attended by council chiefs, business leaders, media and influencers from across the North.
Mr Berry, Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen, said there was a lack of understanding of the capability of the northern economy in high value manufacturing to achieve net zero.
He later told The Star Sheffield had a big opportunity to benefit from the transition, thanks to facilities like the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which he said was a ‘global leader’, Sheffield University, ‘one of the best in the world’, and South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis, who could bring investment into the city.
On stage, Tracy Brabin, West Yorkshire mayor, endorsed the link between climate change and levelling up saying they were ‘brother and sister’.
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Dan Jarvis said he was looking forward to a white paper - a blueprint for the regeneration of the North and other areas - which he hoped would be published by new levelling up secretary Michael Gove before Christmas.
He added: “He has the energy to get this done and codify his commitment to levelling up on education and skills, training, life chances, research and development, health and culture.”
WHY ARE LEADERS PESSIMISTIC ABOUT TRANSPORT?
But there was less optimism about the future of transport - viewed as pivotal to northern prosperity.
Building the eastern leg of HS2 through Yorkshire, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Integrated Rail Plan had all been promised but delayed and not delivered, the conference heard.
Andy Burnham said: “We are about to find out whether levelling up is meaningful. Big decisions will come in the next few weeks, in particular on rail investment, that will reveal the extent of levelling up.
“But what is it? George Osborne talked about towns linking to cities and cities linking to cities and the North getting closer together. It was a powerful vision.
“But levelling up is ‘everything, everywhere’ and that’s a bit of a worry for us.”
In the Budget on Thursday, cash from the Levelling Up Fund was given to a zoo and a swimming pool, he added.
“That’s not levelling up. It is ministers announcing things that local authorities used to do for themselves. We’ve got to get back to a big strategic vision.
“We got a really good settlement on infrastructure which is a credit to Rishi Sunak. We are waiting for funding to run bus services. Public transport needs to be much more affordable to people if levelling up is to mean something to the person in the street.
“We are waiting for the Integrated Rail Plan and the mood music is not good at all.
“It looks as if the eastern leg is being dropped and Piccadilly Station will get nothing like what’s been asked and Northern Powerhouse Rail is upgrades at best. It needs to be the new line via Bradford the Prime Minister promised.
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“These are not things we dreamed up, they were promised to us. Piecemeal investment doesn’t level up the life chances of people in the North.”
Jake Berry agreed, saying: “We are only going to build Northern Powerhouse Rail once, so we must do it properly.”
The Integrated Rail Plan will set out the Department for Transport's vision for rail across the country. It was expected last year but has suffered months of delays.
Dan Jarvis said it was ‘massive for the North of England’ and would shape their economies for generations.
He added: “This is no moment to be timid, this is a moment to be bold. I’m urging government to work with northern leaders to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
HOW MUCH IS NEEDED TO CLOSE THE NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE?
Jake Berry quoted Centre for Cities, which calculated closing the north-south divide would cost more than the €2 trillion reunification of Germany.
At the time, the thinktank also stated the government’s various levelling-up schemes were a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to the investment required.
But Mr Berry told the conference he was pleased with the Budget, calling it a ‘downpayment’ on a huge project. In Sheffield, leaders are celebrating after the city was awarded the full amount it asked for, with £20m for the city centre and £17m for Attercliffe.
On defining levelling up, Mr Berry said it was ‘up to us’.
He added: “We don’t want some southern saviours to do it for us. Government will not deliver levelling up on its own, it’s a partnership with mayors, MPs, business and communities.”
WHY DO METRO MAYORS WANT MORE POWER?
Mayor Jamie Driscoll made the case for more devolution of powers and cash to metro mayors, stating they were best placed to use them.
The Kickstart employment scheme, the Green Homes Grant and the drive for net zero would all be better run locally, he insisted.
And he called for the ability to borrow money, for which he would be accountable.
Mr Jarvis agreed, saying: “We need long term, reliable sources of funding. We are best placed to make the most of that money.
“Competitive bids, sometimes against each other, for lots of different pots of money is not devolution.”