Panellists at the Yorkshire Institute of Directors’ Big Debate argued that the transport systems between and within Yorkshire’s cities must be improved as a first step towards creating a Northern Powerhouse.
The debate covered a wide range of topics, including a discussion about the merits of devolution and an impassioned speech from Etta Cohen, the founder of Forward Ladies, about the need for more women to establish businesses.
The event, which was held at Old Broadcasting House in Leeds, was arranged by the IoD to discuss what the business community had learned since the General Election.
The five panellists - Coun James Lewis, the deputy leader of Leeds City Council, Bill Adams, the regional secretary of the Yorkshire and Humber Trades Union Congress, Amanda Marsey, the director of SMR Architects, Jimmy McLoughlin, Deputy Head of Policy at the IoD, and Ms Cohen, all agreed that the North of England had great economic potential.
However, there was frustration about the lack of immediate action to improve the rail network between the major Northern cities.
Mr Adams said: “Our transport system is creaking under our feet. I can go to London quicker than I can get from Bradford to Leeds sometimes. I’m not hopeful about what has been suggested so far from Westminster.”
Ms Cohen added “It’s great that the Government have recognised there’s a North. It’s great that they’ve realised there’s an economy up here..At the moment, it seems to be a lot of talk and I don’t quite understand what the meat on the bones are. We need better transport, full stop.”
Ms Cohen said she wanted to see rail links from Hull to Liverpool operating efficiently, and a decision made about creating a rail connection to Leeds-Bradford airport.
She added: “Why can’t we just get on and do it?”
Coun Lewis said the North’s potential will only be unlocked if it is better connected.
He added: “If we were better connected the output would be billions and billions of pounds more than we have at the moment. The real prize is that collaboration across the North of England, and that improved infrastructure.”
Ms Marsey said: “Talk is cheap. Collaboration is absolutely key. Transport is a massive aspect and we need to get that right first, but it’s not just London to us. It’s also within each city.
“If you can’t get across cities quickly, and you are going to lots of meetings, that is part of your day gone. Business could be done a lot faster.”
Speaking after the debate. Ms Cohen said that too many decisions were being made in London, by people who knew nothing about life in the North of England, or what it was like to live in a former mining community where people had faced redundancy.
She said women in business needed greater access to finance and sound advice.
Ms Cohen said: “For things like the Northern Powerhouse to work they have to engage locally. I’ve spoken to a few women about it and they’ve said, ‘Well nobody asked me, I don’t know what it is.
“We have to be united..As long as there are more jobs and businesses, more exports and there’s more investment, then we all benefit.
“But in order for that to happen, we need the transport (system).”
Speaking afterwards, Mr McLoughlin said he welcomed the fact that the Northern Powerhouse was on the Government’s agenda.
He added: “The Northern leaders, and that’s businesses and politicians, need to tell the Government exactly what they want. On issues like infrastructure it is crucial to try and speak with a single voice.”
However, he acknowledged that on issues such as business rates “people need to argue for their own areas”.
“Skills is an issue that is going to dominate the future of business,’’ he said. “We need to move towards a lifelong learning system. There was a report out last week saying that we’re going to be a million jobs short, just in the digital sector alone, so there’s huge issues that are relevant for the Northern Powerhouse as well as the entire country.
“When it comes to women on boards and non- executive director positions, big progress has been made over the last 10 years.
“But we always need to be looking at the next issue to focus on. Women starting businesses is an area we need to look at,’’ he added. “The most powerful thing is for women to inspire other women.”