Sharing a platform with Andy Burnham at an Institute of Directors event in Liverpool, Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram said a new Industrial Revolution was within the grasp of the city region. Tony McDonough reports
Liverpool city region could see its “greatest period of growth since the Industrial Revolution” if the Government is serious about its levelling up agenda.
That’s the view of Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram who told an audience of business leaders in Liverpool he has put forward a credible plan to Government that would see “tens of thousands of jobs and billion of pounds of investment” pour into the region.
Mr Rotheram shared a platform with his Greater Manchester counterpart Andy Burnham at the event at ACC Liverpool organised by the Institute of Directors (IoD) and sponsored by accountancy firm DSG, Kays Medical and ACC Liverpool.
A range of questions were put to the pair by David Wafer, managing director of McIver Scott Recruitment, and chair of the Liverpool city region branch of the IoD. They focused on the mayors’ plans to reinvigorate the North West economy post-pandemic.
Both Mr Rotheram and Mr Burnham said they were prepared to put party politics aside and work with the Government to accelerate the pace of devolution and turn the Government’s “levelling up” rhetoric into reality. They called for an end to the “beauty contest” which saw UK regions compete against eachother for funding.
However, both Mayors said they were frustrated with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and were left deeply unimpressed by his levelling up speech, delivered in Coventry last week which they said lacked any real substance.
“Last week we heard Boris Johnson say he will give us new grassroots football pitches and a chewing gum task force,” said Mr Burnham. “Lord Westlake has previously called those kinds of things ‘pea-shooter policies’.
‘The good news is that this is the first Government in my lifetime that has put forward regional equality as an actual policy. But I am still wondering whether or not they actually mean it. If they do, then great. That could actually neutralise the politics and also help the Government as well.”
He talked about the Net Zero North West project, a collaboration between Liverpool city region and Greater Manchester that will see a number of hydrogen-led schemes brought forward that could create 200,000 new jobs.
And Mr Rotheram said his twin plans to tap into the transatlantic internet cable that comes ashore in Southport, to offer super-fast web access, and his Mersey Tidal Power scheme to offer 100 years of green energy, would be transformational for the city region.
“If you look at the number of foreign direct investments that come into the Liverpool city region each year, you will see that we are well behind cities such as Manchester and Sheffield,” said Mr Rotheram.
“We can give businesses two things that would be a huge attraction – clean energy and super-fast internet access. No other region in the UK can offer both of those. They would be huge assets when it comes to attracting investment.”
Mr Rotheram said the Conservative Metro Mayor in Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, had already seen more funds going into his region than other areas. He added: “I’m not knocking him for that. He is doing what he is supposed to do for his region.
“But the way the Government does things is via beauty contests with regions competing for money. Ben Houchen has already secured a disproportionate amount of funding. That will not work if you are serious about levelling up because you are just creating more disparities.
“We have put forward a £1.4bn recovery plan to the Government and they have said it is the most ambitious and doable. But they have to put their money where their mouth is. We can create tens of thousands of jobs and attract billions of pounds of investment.
“We can forge new industries here. We have the assets to do that. If the Government agrees to fund it then that would be proper levelling up.”
At another event in Liverpool earlier this month, former Minister for Merseyside Lord Heseltine urged the Government to offer more devolution to the regions. He said: “Look around the world and show me an advanced economy that is not devolved. It is the case everywhere except here in the UK.”
Both Greater Manchester and Liverpool city region have differing devolution deals. Mr Burnham currently has a wider range of powers than Mr Rotheram. His role incorporates that of police and crime commissioner and he has some control over health budgets. Both mayors have control of the adult education budgets and have some control over public transport.
Mr Burnham oversees the running of the Metrolink and is also expected to take control of the region’s buses in the near future. Allowing him to create a more integrated London-style public transport network in Greater Manchester. Mr Rotheram has similar ambitions for Liverpool city region but has yet to secure a deal to take control of the buses.
Mr Rotheram is also determined to push to take control of the Apprenticeship Levy in the region. He said from “day one” of his time in office he identified the skills gap as one of the underlying causes of inequality in Liverpool city region.
He explained: “We have said to different secretaries of state ‘let us work together to create a pipeline of development for skills. We need to address the skills we will need for when we get to 2030.
“The Apprenticeship Levy is being abused on a national level by firms in the City of London who are using it for skills at Levels 4 and 5. But the Apprenticeship Levy was designed to address the skills gap and I am saying we cab do a better job with it. Let us have control of it and you will get a better bang for your buck.”
Lord Heseltine also stressed the importance of having people on the ground who could lead and make decisions and Mr Burnham stressed the value of Metro Mayors wasn’t just in the mandated powers but also in what he called “softer power”.
“One of the biggest issues when I took power in Greater Manchester was rough sleepers. There were hundreds of people sleeping on the streets. While we didn’t have any specific powers or budget we were able to use that soft power to bring people together.
“There is a he value in being that one person who can bring people together. Though working together we have now brought the number of rough sleepers down to around 70. We find a way to do things. The job is what you make it.”
However, adding that it was still a struggle to convince Prime Minister of the value of devolved power and the Metro Mayors, he said: “He still thinks Metro Mayors shouldn’t answer back and that is the moment we are at.”