Cabinet needs more northern voices

Policy North Communications Director, and former Conservative Press Officer Peter Bould writes...

There is widespread speculation that Theresa May is set to reshuffle her Cabinet in a bid to stamp her authority on the Government and create consensus in Whitehall as crucial Brexit talks intensify.

While much of the focus has fallen on the fate of Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the PM’s overhaul could, and should, stretch much further. With clear differences over the Government’s strategy in relation to Brexit and ministers appearing to speak from multiple hymn sheets, Theresa May needs to exert her authority. She also needs to freshen up the face of the Conservative Party to win hearts and minds, just as David Cameron had to a decade ago.

History shows that divided governments don’t last long and voters punish them at the ballot box. Aside from briefings and manoeuvres, there is another striking dimension to the current Cabinet.

The North has incredibly poor representation at the highest level of government. In fact, you’d have to go back more than 20 years for a time when fewer secretaries of state held north constituencies.

Of the current 28 Cabinet attendees, only Brexit Secretary David Davis holds a northern constituency - Haltemprice and Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Having confirmed that northern economic rebalancing remains one of her core missions, it’s time for the PM to correct the chronic shortage of north decision makers in her government.

Under David Cameron, senior members including William Hague and George Osborne were strong northern voices.

Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, there was no shortage of northern secretaries of state but their governments lacked an economic vision for the North, proving that representation alone is not enough.

We are not arguing that northern constituencies should be in the Cabinet simply to make up the numbers. The North voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and denied Theresa May a majority at this year’s election with a string of target seats in the North that failed to turn blue.

Theresa May is leading a One Nation, Brexit government and the Conservatives need to make serious inroads into the North if they are ever to have a majority again. That means listening to the North.

And there are numerous rising stars to pick from.

In the North East, Anne-Marie Trevelyan has proved that she can get things moving, literally with her A1 campaign in Berwick. In a notoriously hard job as newly installed pensions minister, Hexham MP Guy Opperman has already got the pensions industry onside. In Yorkshire, Rishi Sunak has impressed since taking over from William Hague. With a successful business career behind him, he is one of the few MPs to have already articulated the opportunities for the North post-Brexit with his paper on Free Ports. And in the North West, Seema Kennedy amongst others is clearly a fast rising star. 

Theresa May needs more of these people around her. They have the hunger and the ideas to energise the Government, support the prime minister and offer something new to the public.

The North deserves better representation around the Cabinet table so that the needs of businesses and constituents in the North can be heard at the highest level.

For many reasons, this is an opportunity Theresa May must not miss.

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Northern Transport: The £13bn investment changing the North for good

Today Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is heading north to talk to local leaders about transport infrastructure. 

For business, better transport infrastructure is absolutely key to us delivering a growing economy in the North. 

Almost £13bn will be invested into northern transport infrastructure by the government over this parliament. Importantly, along with that investment, power has been devolved too, with elected mayors in some areas and Transport for the North now in place to decide and deliver on our strategic transport priorities. 

However it was surprising for many to see Labour MP's representing Yorkshire and the Humber calling to "receive greater control over transport"  last month - and just weeks later, Labour Council leaders in Barnsley and Doncaster pulling the plug on a devolution deal which could delivered just that, as part of a wider £900 million deal.

It is true the north has historically suffered from poor rail and road infrastructure. That historic imbalance has not just happened recently, but had built up because of decades of under investment.

Grayling himself makes it clear poor transport is still holding the north back. "Congested roads and overcrowded trains are a daily reality for thousands of commuters. Without modern, efficient and reliable transport links, the vast economic potential of the North cannot be realised."

Campaign groups and Labour politicians continue to talk cash -  calling for "£59 billion" of "catch up cash". To give that some context, that is about £15 billion more than the UK's entire annual Defence budget. 

However out of the bubble and on the ground we are now starting to see real improvements. For example, the £770 million being invested in the A6 Manchester Airport relief road will increase access to the country's third biggest airport, providing an economic boost to Greater Manchester and beyond with more than 22 million people living within a two hour drive of the airport. That investment is one of the reasons is why the new Enterprise Zone is proving such a positive investment opportunity for major companies like Amazon, which is creating 1,500 jobs by opening it's new facility at Airport City.

It is pointless and counter-productive to simply compare the north to London. Local leaders in London were planning for today's £15bn Crossrail project from as early as the 1970s. Crossrail 2 has been almost a decade in preparation. The North needs transport investment, but it needs vision too. We need our local leaders here in the North to develop their own vision, to think differently and be ambitious - both about new and existing transport infrastructure. 

Local leaders across the North must now step up, listen to business and the public, and work with government in making sure transport in the North is fit for decades to come.

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The technology that will change the world by 2030 – and it’s not AI

The technology most likely to shape our future, the way we live our daily lives, has arrived. It's not social media, big data, or AI - but cryptocurrency, a digital monetary system made up of revolutionary block chain technology. 

Within two decades it will be likely a true statement: gone are the days of financial intermediaries. That is our central banks and traditional financial services institutions that act as the “medium” between payment and settlement transactions. I accept this is a bold statement – to suggest the role of our central banks in our monetary system is near the end of play. This would be the case if we were to completely embrace block chain technology as a welcome innovation – to which there are many advantages.

Indeed, it is true that financial intermediaries had and still have a significant role in the contemporary monetary system as book keepers, regulatory bodies and institutions that promote trust and confidence – but to fully embrace block chain cryptocurrencies would perform all three functions more effectively and efficiently – and relinquish the need for (now old fashioned) central banks and heavy government involvement in monetary systems.  

We are standing on the precipice of a digital economic revolution that will change the world as we know it. For the first time in history, individuals are empowered to trust each other and deal financial transactions peer to peer in a secure way. Trust established not by a big institution, but by collaboration, cryptography, and some clever codes. 

How does this thing work?  The make-up of cryptocurrency is block chain technology. This enables digital assets to be placed across a global ledger, rather than stored in a central place such as a bank. When a transaction takes place it is posted globally across millions of computers. Every 10 minutes a block gets created that has all of the transactions from each 10 minutes. Each block is linked, creating a chain (a block chain), linked to all computers simultaneously - far more secure than the increasingly old fashioned and unnecessary processes currently used by financial institutions of today. 

As an example of the simplification of financial transactions that block chain provides, current financial institutions have an over complicated role for a simple function, the payments and settlements of transactions under block chain will be settled under one ledger. Currently, institutions are required to fulfil a multi-pronged oversight to financial transaction. This means block chain cryptocurrency is both more effective and efficient than the current processes used by traditional financial institutions.

The benefits to cryptocurrency are plentiful and could revolutionise all of our lives. These benefits, which I will soon discuss, range from democratisation of the economy, prosperity for potentially billions of people, creating a sharing economy, fixing the system of intellectual property and privacy of personal data.

Cryptocurrency is democratising the economy. Protecting rights by establishing immutable records on a block chain. For instance, titles of land ownership, which in some countries may be under threat by modes of governance such as communist dictatorships, would be given value secured by block chain which can't be contradicted by a government computer, or certain governments, some of which monetary systems fail, inflate economies and devalue currencies. This monetary democratisation ensures all individuals across the world are empowered and engaged in the economy - not just those who have access to a "transparent" central bank. This creates the conditions for prosperity for potentially billions of people. This itself has two key societal benefits – protection and increased participation.

Cryptocurrency enables citizens to own and monetise their own data. Data is a contemporary asset class - like land or money. We create this asset class but often it is big corporations who own it and profit from it. As a brief summary, through transactions we leave crumbs (small pieces of data resulting from transactions) behind that are collected by corporations. By using this data longitudinally, corporations are able to create a virtual you. This might reflect you more than you know yourself. You can't remember what you bought last week, last month, last year. But this information is currently being logged coherently and highly monetised by big corporations, social media companies and financial services institutions. This is a by problem. Privacy is a necessity for a truly free and fair society. Currently the economy of data is being monopolised by those at the top, using big data, your data, the virtual you, to their advantage. Block chain technology allows you to own your data and ensure you reap the benefits from transactions. The system of intellectual property is broken, and individuals don't have the rights to their own information. It was broken by the first era of the internet. This is about fair compensation and block chain allows this economic liberation to empower all - from creators of content, data, and value everywhere. 

The benefits of blockchain are astronomical. Even as I write, innovators are building revolutionary blockchain-based applications that serve these ends. These ends, combined with a collective societal-economic consensus of embracing blockchain cryptocurrency, will liberate billions of people from the shackles of the inequalities aplenty in the current economic system – and these benefits are just the beginning.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency can rewrite the structure of economic society and solve some of the world’s most troubling socioeconomic problems - if we embrace it. Indeed, don’t just rely on my words, but also the words of IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty. Rometty, as CEO of a company which has pioneered the digital revolution this far, expressed fully confidence in block chain cryptocurrencies suggesting “what the internet did for communications […] blockchain will do for trusted transactions.”

The technology is there, ready, waiting. The next step is to embrace it. The next step is you.

About the author:

Callum Crozier is a political adviser to Conservative MP's. He is a recent graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he majored in Government. His key area of research is how digital innovation and technological progress will influence the future role of governments in society.

How can the North attract more Nissans, Hitachis and giants like Amazon?

"If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school."

 

Those were Theresa May’s first words as prime minister outside 10 Downing Street just over a year ago. Remember the "JAMs"? She struck a chord with the country and spoke for many who are, in her words, just about managing.

New figures show that Tyneside in the North East of England tops the list of people who most fit her Downing Street description. Newcastle has more than its fair share of ‘Just About Managings’.

The study by Policy North shows Newcastle has the highest proportion of people who are in work but, with almost no savings to fall back on, really are just about managing.

If the unthinkable happened and jobs were lost, a shocking 10 per cent of Newcastle workers would run out of money altogether in under four weeks – twice the proportion of Liverpool and Bristol (both 5%), higher than Birmingham (7%), Manchester and Leeds (both 8%) and Southampton at 4%.

Our research shows a third of those in Newcastle worry about money every single day.

These numbers go a long way towards explaining Brexit and the recent election result.

More public sector jobs, too often the prescription for the North East, never addresses the fundamental long-term need for a larger and stronger private sector in the North. Relying on public sector jobs simply puts places like the North East at the front of the unemployment queue when the tough times come and public finances are squeezed. 

That is why we are so passionate about expanding the North's trading opportunities around the world, not just in industry but in services too. Once we leave the EU, we can choose to trade with any country in the world and the North must lead that charge. 

In the North East for example, we have manufacturing skills, ports and airports that make us a prime location for international businesses to locate their assembly plants. Incentivised with no customs tariffs on goods processed and stored inside our idea of a Great North Free Port, how many more Nissans, Hitachis and retail giants like Amazon could we attract here bringing scores of direct and indirect jobs?

Food for thought this summer.

Invest in digital and put North in the fast lane

Having secured a Commons majority for the Government’s agenda and the passing of the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May must have been dreaming that things could only get better. But in a sign of what could be in store for the PM and her minority government, she has lurched straight into a fight over continued austerity and the thorny subject of public sector pay.

It is a bigger issue in the North East than anywhere else in England. Twenty per cent of workers in the region are employed in the public sector, down from 26% in 2010 but still the highest in England. The 1% public sector cap has been brought into particular sharp focus with inflation currently standing at 2.9%.

This issue is not limited to the public sector. Research carried out for Policy North shows that 62% of people in the North East have seen no change, or worse a reduction, in their salary compared to 2014, rising to 63% in the North West and 69% in Yorkshire.

No surprise then that the nature of employment across the country is changing. Our research shows a trend away from traditional full time employment and into self employment and what has become known as the ‘gig economy’ – people freelancing with the likes of Uber and Amazon or using the internet to offer their skills and services around the world. Nationally around 1m people make up the gig economy while 15% are self employed – a 50% rise compared to 1975.

Working practices are changing across the country and the evidence suggests they will continue to do so. As more and more people move out of employment into self-employment and freelance, do we have the infrastructure they need?

The vast majority of people who work for themselves start their enterprise from home. Broadband is a vital tool that brings global customers to people's kitchen tables and in turn helps today's freelancers become tomorrow's entrepreneurs.

Yet parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria rank among the lowest in the UK for broadband speeds and areas in Northumberland fare only a little better.

Every household in the country will have access to broadband speeds of at least 10mbps by 2020 under current plans but already the conversation has moved on to ultra-fast broadband.  

The Government announced a £1bn Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund this week to banish buffering and get rid of slow download speeds. It is exactly what the UK needs and is an opportunity to rebalance the economy northwards to support the growing army of people setting up on their own and starting out in business. 

The project aims to provide homes and businesses with speeds of up to 1gbps, using fibre optics direct to premises.

Policy North has put connectivity at the top of our agenda. Alongside trade and skills, these are the priorities that could transform our economy and pave the way for a truly 'global north'.

Against a backdrop of long-running disputes over pay that look set to continue, working practices in the North are changing faster than many realise. We’d welcome ministers to pilot their vision of an ultra-fast future here in the North East as part of a commitment to building a "Digital North" and give a much needed boost to productivity. Otherwise we risk seeing this investment largely in London and the South, further widening a gap that already exists.

The North East may be at the back of the HS2 queue, but we can still get ahead in the digital fast lane.