The lift doors close and I have ten floors to give my message to Lord Adonis.
What would I say to Lord Adonis in an elevator pitch as he completes his economic review?
You know the game. You unexpectedly meet a famous person in a lift and have to get your message across before you get to the tenth floor. At a philanthropy conference, the challenge is always to tell Bill Gates how to spend his money in ten seconds.
Andrew Adonis and his colleagues, commissioned by North East Local Enterprise Partnership to produce an independent review of the North East economy, have a Microsoft aura about them as they come up with their conclusions in the Spring.
As the lift door closes, I take a deep breath. “ Did your consultation with business leaders at the Baltic go well? “, I ask. “I thought the expert papers and literature reviews were very impressive.” (www.nelep.co.uk/ne-economic-review/evidence/) “They must leave you with a lot to distil into a few policy recommendations. ” His Lordship smiles.
We pass the first floor. I am obliged to mention my own vested interests. “ I hope you will take account of the way that cultural investment pays dividends. The revival of the Ouseburn Valley is in no small part due to the success of Seven Stories which has just been designated as is the national collection of childrens books and I hope you will visit.”
“ It is good that you recognise that the economy stretches further than manufacturing and professional services. You can spend too long crystal gazing as to which far eastern industry will come here next. Sometimes growth comes from unexpected quarters, like the ground breaking research on ageing and vitality. “
Second floor: Be positive. “It is so important that the North East is repositioned as a vibrant and attractive place to work and live. We don’t make enough of our natural advantages or quality of life. Look at the effect of Alnwick Garden, Durham Cathedral or Kielder Forest on economic development for example. Sing the praises of our beaches, the quality of the water and the quick travel to work times.”
I have just finished reading the economist Tim Harford’s cynical view of how economies work. The industrial revolution, he says, was not due to flashes of creative genius as much as the right combination of raw materials and cheap labour in the right place at the right time. We can alter the equation in the North East simply by speeding up the broadband in rural areas and, with more difficulty, by providing a more highly skilled workforce.
Third floor: “ I think the CBI has an good point when it argues for the skills agenda. Too many people are settling for low skill jobs. We cannot attract high value industries because we do not have the work force. Somehow we have got to instil young people with aspirations – and goodness knows we have tried”
Time and tact forbid me mentioning Ed Cox’s lecture in Gateshead last week when the Director of ippr north questioned the overdependence on Nissan and its supply chain in the regional economy though secretly I admire his courage in challenging the conventional wisdom.
But as we pass the fourth floor, it is time to take a risk. “ I know our export performance is good but on most other economic indices the North East is towards the bottom of the league when compared to other regions. Don’t let that worry you. We will never beat the South East and should not give ourselves too hard a time about it. I would much rather be benchmarked against other comparable border regions in Europe ( Northern Denmark say ) and learn from them.”
One of the great dangers of this region is that we blow our own trumpet too hard. All the columnists in the Journal ever tell you ( this one excepted) is that the North East economy is doing really well, when the evidence points to the contrary. “Be honest and realistic” I urge.
It is the same with the football team. Everyone unrealistically expects Newcastle to win silverware every year and then is disappointed. If our ambition was for a solid mid table position, we would occasionally be pleasantly surprised.
“How are you getting on with the political leaders? ” I ask with an eye on the lift dial as another floor speeds by. “I know you would like to see a single city region authority but is it ever likely to happen? Be pragmatic and settle for improved joint working between the seven authorities.” But I wonder if Adonis has just the right political credentials to broker a more far reaching deal?
Floor six: “But I hope you will make the case to Whitehall that the North East needs a fairer settlement of public subsidy. There is nothing wrong in being a “moaning Minnie” if that’s what is needed.”
Londoners get 100 times more per person spent on traffic schemes and we get in the North East. But they do have a lot more traffic! I have a sense of injustice that HS2 will not come to Newcastle but I suspect it would be a “two way street” that would take people and business more swiftly to London. “
Floor seven:” Lets accept that connectivity will not work wonders; that Leeds is always going to outperform us as a regional capital by virtue of being nearer to London. Make a virtue out of a necessity. Build the convention centre, restore the marketing budgets to the tourist agencies and sell Newcastle – Gateshead as a great destination. Classical concerts, obscure medical conferences, stag parties, cycling holidays and all. “
Floor eight: “And remember that jobs and wealth are not everything. Happiness and equality are important too. We know that communities that are more equal and better connected have higher rates of employment. The Christian heritage of the region is worth remembering too.”
I head for the lift door, with one floor still to go and so get the last word: “Thank you for taking this on, Andrew. ( I feel I know the man by now) And if you are looking for a quiet and comfortable venue for your final deliberations, bring your team out to Shepherds Dene for a few days.”
“This is where I get off. I look forward to reading your report. Good bye.”
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene shepherdsdene.co.uk