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Northern Powerhouse commitment questioned by Lord O'Neill

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The government is starting to take the Northern Powerhouse more seriously, but it is still not being held in the same regard as it was under the previous administration, former commercial secretary to the Treasury Lord O’Neill has told LGC.

Lord O’Neill, who had responsibility for city devolution and the Northern Powerhouse while a minister, also urged leaders in the north of England to look less to the “idiots in Whitehall” and produce more creative solutions in the areas of training and education in order to convince the government to devolve more powers and responsibility.

“The government isn’t taking it [the Northern Powerhouse] as seriously as David Cameron and George Osborne did, but its more serious than it was,” said Lord O’Neill, who is now a non-affiliated peer.

Lord O’Neill, who is now on the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which Mr Osborne helped set up, said it was really important that combined authority mayors lobby together on issues of importance like education and training.

“For certain things like education I think it would be really important if they [mayors] had a collective voice. Occasionally, of course, they need to work together more - but I think they do work together [already] sometimes,” he said.

Northern leaders also need to use more optimistic language in addressing development, instead of talking about inequality and asking the government for money, Lord O’Neill told a Northern Powerhouse conference on education and skills in Leeds on Friday.

“When the north says it needs help quite a lot of people think ‘Yeah, it’s a problem but what’s so important about the north?’

“A better way is to say ‘We’re going on this journey – why not be part of it?’ It’s better than asking for money.”

Lord O’Neill said the group’s focus on training was definitely the most important thing the partnership had done.

“Unless we get education cracked, the rest might not matter,” he said, referring to government deals on transport and infrastructure.

In a separate interview with LGC, Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram (Lab) told LGC that the Department for Education needs to “change its culture” and devolve more powers and responsibilities if it is to achieve its aims on improving educational development in the north.

A report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership last week called for a £300mn boost in government funding for students in disadvantaged areas, greater control over education budgets devolved to metro mayors, and a reform of the pupil premium so that more would end up in disadvantaged areas.

“If we keep banging on about reforming pupil premium then I’m pretty sure it’ll happen 12 months from now,” Lord O’Neill told the conference.


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