Speaking at a dinner hosted by law firm Ward Hadaway in Leeds, Ed Cox, director of IPPR North, called for the creation of a new group to speak up for businesses across the whole of the North.
He said the Northern Powerhouse agenda has seen a lot of progress over the last week including the “unpausing” of plans to invest in cross-Pennine rail links, a shake-up of the business rates system and a deal to transfer funding powers to the Sheffield city region.
But he warned that the proposals to maximise the economic potential of the North through improved transport links and devolution of powers from Whitehall to city regions face a number of threats.
Mr Cox said the Government is facing “devo disarray” and “devo fatigue”, with civil servants unable to cope with the volume and complexity of 38 bespoke bids from local authorities.
He said the devolution of business rates, which will allow councils to keep money raised locally, could be followed by the slashing of revenue support grants in next month’s spending review.
Mr Cox said the Government will need to do a devolution deal with Scotland, which will have implications for the North, and predicted that London “will leapfrog” everywhere else with a massive deal after next year’s electoral election. He said the Labour Party is in disarray over many issues, including devolution, and the looming referendum on Britain’s place in the European Union could shift Tory focus away from the Northern Powerhouse.
Mr Cox said the priority for the Government should be investment in the North, particularly in transport projects.
He believes there is scope to commit at least £1bn a year to Northern Powerhouse projects in this spending period and £50bn on rail and roads over the course of the next spending period.
He also called for better process for devolution and a redistribution of civil servants from Whitehall to support local government in the regions.
Mr Cox added: “We have got to see stronger business leadership. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the LEPs...
“I think businesses across the regions at times need to knock political heads together in order to move some of these processes forward.”
He said the North needs an equivalent body to London First to provide a voice for business. London First, founded in 1992, lobbies national and local policymakers to make the capital more competitive.
Mr Cox claimed that the new Transport for North body is moving “by stealth” towards a northern political forum.
Mr Cox added: “I think like Transport for London it will start to expand its remit beyond just transport into economic development more widely.
“Before we know it, it may well be that we have some kind of pan-northern government.”