In the latest instalment of Insider's Q&A series on the Northern Powerhouse, Martin Anderson, chief executive at Lemon Contact Centre, discusses what the initiative means to him, how levelling-up has changed the mindset of the Tees Valley, and the need to improve transport infrastructure.
Name: Martin Anderson
Position: Chief executive
Company: Lemon Contact Centre
What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
To me, the Northern Powerhouse means putting opportunities into the hands of local people then having faith in them to succeed. It's about instilling pride in the people of the North and giving them the ability to live, work and flourish in the place they call home. Most importantly, it's about creating a level playing field so everyone in the UK - no matter where they are from - has the same access to opportunities.
Eight years have passed since the phrase 'Northern Powerhouse' was first coined. Has enough happened since then?
I think the Northern Powerhouse got off to a slow start, but at least it was a start and now we're beginning to see real changes. The fact the Government was willing to recognise that it had underdelivered for so long and promise to do better was huge. Others might disagree, but where I am in Tees Valley, we're the posterchild for the Northern Powerhouse or levelling up, whatever you want to call it – and it's making a big impact. The biggest change isn't the jobs or investment, it's the change in mindset of the people here; there's a real sense that the area is on the up – that we can take on anyone.
How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?
There is no doubt that Tees Valley's metro mayor Ben Houchen has been a real driving force for my area, in the same way Andy Burnham has been over in the North West. Elected mayors need to have a strong personality and the tenacity to fight for their corner. Both Houchen and Burnham are using their powers to lay down the foundations for future prosperity and talking up their areas. Some are content to continue the narrative of downtrodden Northerners instead of seizing the opportunity to flip the script.
What needs to be done to help the North recover from the Covid-19 outbreak?
I think the Government needs to take a serious look at the skills we need now and for the future to ensure the North – and the whole country for that matter – is able to service business and industry otherwise the opportunities will head elsewhere.
There has been a real surge in technological developments over the last few years, but we don't seem to have enough skilled people to capitalise on the opportunities presented for one reason or another.
One solution would be financial incentives to encourage people to gain skills and experiences in sectors where there are major gaps, or government-funded evening or weekend classes. This wouldn't just help younger people beginning their careers, or those who are out of work, but also enable people who are ten, 20 years into professional life to switch careers.
What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?
I think infrastructure, or the lack good quality and reliable means of transport, is probably one of the most pressing issues in the North. Although it won't be popular with a lot of people given the amount that's been spent on it so far, but I think we should cancel HS2 and redirect the funds to updating local infrastructure outside of the South East. HS2 is a typical example of a South-first mindset that has traditionally prevailed; why did it start in the South and head north, instead of the other way round?
If we really want to encourage people to live and work in the North, then we need to ensure that local connections and public transport are of a good quality and reliable.
Is there enough collaboration between towns and cities across the North?
From my experiences, there is some collaboration in the North East – but there can always be more. There has always been a bit of Tyne-Tees divide in our region; Tees Valley was seen as the poor cousin of the Northern part of the region. I think that's changing but we need to do more work together for the benefit of the whole of the North East and this starts with the local authorities and elected mayors. Instead of competing against one another for investment and opportunities, we could look to form a whole region strategy. We have lots of shared history and culture and it's entirely possible for someone to live in Tees Valley, work in Durham and spend their free time in Tyneside, so maybe it's time for us to come together for the common benefit of the whole North East.
How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?
I think we now have a government, which recognises that creating a level playing field across the UK is the right thing to do. In doing so, it drives competition, which results in innovations, new opportunities and a prosperous economy – which benefits everyone.
We want to create well-paid secure jobs for local people and provide them with opportunity for progression. A growing economy, with more work for our clients results in more work for us, and therefore more employment opportunities and more chances for people to step up the career ladder.