Debates over process do not make the boat go faster

Debates over process do not make the boat go faster

by Jack Stopforth

When Sir Steve Redgrave was preparing for his Olympics races, he was in huge demand to deliver motivational speeches, support charities and appear as a guest on TV chat shows. His sole criterion for saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was “will it make the boat go faster?”

He understood that public relations mattered – that positive exposure for his sport might promote sponsorship and political backing and so contribute to better performance and ultimately make the boat go faster; but if the invitation was frivolous or just about earning a fee, he turned it down because he had work to do.

Whether the Northern Powerhouse is a genuine prospect or just a campaign slogan remains to be seen. It featured large in the election campaign and was mentioned in the Party Conferences but the immediate post-election ditching of HS3 and other east-west infrastructure upgrades essential to the North suggests that we may just be in for yet another round of "Would I Lie to You?" Investment in London remains unaffected by Austerity but in Victorian town halls in cities north of Milton Keynes, local politicians are meeting their local chambers of commerce and LEPs to ask how they can hold government’s feet to the fire and secure the investment needed to turn Northern Powerhouse into reality.

If government is serious about this agenda, everything from public health, regional NHS spending, education and training, housing, economic development and transport spending is theoretically up for grabs. It appears a glittering prize for council leaders starved of power and influence and it is little wonder that they are so worked up. London is another country and while Sadiq Kahn, like Boris before him, has said he fears the capital may be left behind in the devolution stakes, the control he already enjoys over essential services remains the envy of every other Mayor and Leader.

By popular consensus, Manchester is well ahead of the trailing pack of cities. Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein have already secured significant concessions. The blood-letting and political in-fighting that causes other city-regions to focus on process rather than outcomes is no less fierce in Manchester but the worst of it took place a decade ago and is generally kept out of view. Manchester recognised even before elected mayors were mooted that government wanted to deal with a single political spokesperson and have confidence that massive capital and revenue programmes were deliverable across council boundaries by competent officers. To its credit, Manchester ticked those boxes years ago.

For the rest, the message is clear. Business people in the regions should join public private partnership boards but limit their involvement to identifying barriers to economic growth and demanding their removal. If they become embroiled in debates over process they become part of the problem instead of its solution. For their part, local councils should scrap arbitrary district boundaries and start planning and delivering services on a footprint that makes economic sense.

Then, maybe, we'll make the boat go faster.