Downtown chief executive and chairman and chairman Frank McKenna says more devolution is needed if the English regions are to address their skills and transport crises. Tony McDonough reports
Progress on addressing the skills and transport crises in the North of England has stalled as the Government is “paralysed” by Brexit, a Liverpool business leader claims.
Frank McKenna, chief executive and chairman of business lobby group and networking club, Downtown in Business, said the Conservatives’ Brexit plan was now a “shambles” and also criticised Labour for not pushing harder for more devolution.
Speaking ahead of the Labour and Conservative Party conferences, which will be held in Liverpool and Birmingham respectively, Mr McKenna said: “Theresa May and her colleagues appear to be obsessed with Brexit. They could be forgiven if the negotiations on our withdrawal from the EU were progressing, but they have been a shambles – and this uncertainty isn’t helping business either.”
Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram has now been in office for more than a year but he believes the Government needs to devolve more powers so he can make a real impact on issues such as the chronic shortage of vital skills.
At Liverpool’s International Business Festival in June he called on Whitehall to give regional mayors control over the money raised via the Apprenticeship Levy so it can be targeted more effectively to meet regional needs.
Mr McKenna echoed the concern over the skills gap adding that the recent and ongoing chaos on the North West rail network was also an issue of major concern.
He added: “I think Lord Jim O’ Neil had it right when he said recently that the momentum that had been achieved under the leadership of former chancellor George Osborne for the Northern Powerhouse initiative has been lost in recent months.
“The chaos that we have suffered and experienced with our rail services over the summer has inevitably been highlighted as the clearest example of centrally managed services not delivering at a regional level.
“However, the lack of progress on skills and education is of equal concern. When will Whitehall devolve the responsibility and financial resources to our city regions so that we can begin to genuinely tackle the appalling skills gap that we are experiencing, and which stalls business growth across the north?”
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is due to hold its annual conference at ACC Liverpool in September and Mr McKenna also called on them to put more pressure on the Government.
“What are Labour saying about the devolution agenda?,” he asked. I don’t see any pressure coming from the opposition benches to crack on with advancing existing devolution deals in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region.
“If this continues into the New Year, the Northern Powerhouse will be seen as no more than a moribund brand that is being used by Westminster politicians to pat northerners on the head with promises of jam tomorrow.
“We must begin to see real progress on the key issues that were flagged as crucial to balancing the economy of UK PLC by the previous Conservative leadership- infrastructure, transport, skills, investment and economic development.”