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15 minutes with…Edna Robinson of the People’s Powerhouse

Edna Robinson is the chairman of People’s Powerhouse movement, which was launched last year to help ensure that people and communities are at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.

She talks to New Start about her vision for the North and why encouraging local prosperity is so important for the region’s success.

 

 

What is your vision for the People’s Powerhouse Movement?

My vision is that people in the North feel they are franchised with the big infrastructure debates going on around them. My vision for the North is something people can recognise and connect with. It’s not just about infrastructure though, it’s about people’s wellbeing and new models of economics, which encourage more local prosperity.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Westminster pays the North enough attention. Is more devolution the answer?

We have good MPs in the North and they are very vocal and have a strong vision for the North. I don’t think we lack influence in Westminster in terms of narrative, but we lack clout in terms of spending. We have created this People’s Powerhouse movement because we want to ensure that it’s not just another committee-style process, where only a few people end up making very important decisions.

What do you see as the key issues facing the region?

Infrastructure is one. One example which has been a tremendous success is Manchester International Airport, which is owned by a group of local authorities and has been built up over a long period of time. It’s a real hub for international networking. But locally, there is still an issue around how people can travel to work and the expense of commuting in a low-wage economy. Infrastructure is not the whole solution. The other conversation people are having is around skills, so people can get better jobs. I would argue that in some parts of the North, there’s still a bit of work to be done to help people feel more ambitious about the jobs they can get. It’s not just about schools, it’s also about what happens at home.

Is it important for businesses and local authorities to get together and address the skills issues?

Definitely. There are examples of that happening, particularly with Local Enterprise Partnerships, but what I’m hearing is that people do not want international investment if there is no social investment in those communities. We don’t want to extract wealth by seeing the North just as a low-wage economy. The creation of good, local economies will help grow the economy in the long term. Trickledown economics is fine, but how many generations do not get even a trickle? Some things need a radical rethink in terms of how we create a local business infrastructure. We need to make sure grants are there for small business, as well as the large macro businesses. We have to be more ambitious for ourselves. We can service our own local economies with food and service industries. It does not have to be large macro chains that do all the work.

Do you see the growth of social enterprises and business start-ups as key to this?

One of my day jobs is working as chairman of the social housing landlord, Trafford Housing Trust. We are 100% not-for-profit and we are building houses in the North. The models are out there. The charity and social business sector is often seen as a soft part of society. I want to get the message out there that’s it’s hard-edged business model, just the same as any other. It just has social value.

There’s also evidence that young people are disenfranchised from mainstream politics, because of the choices between very hard left and very hard right, but they are growing up as a generation seeing poor social care, and they want to make a difference. I think we are pushing at an open door with young people’s enterprise. It’s up to us to galvanise that and I’m very excited about the energy here in the North.

Will the gig economy offer challenges for the region?

There is an issue about flexibility of employment. It can be a good thing, but when it becomes exploitative or people can’t get a mortgage, then we have to say something. It’s should not be about macro-economies, where only a few people create business models, we want people to feel they have self-worth.

What role would you like to see local authorities play in shaping the local economy?

Local authorities are crucial. They are honourable institutions. But I think they have been beaten up over the last few years with funding allocations. They’ve had to look for “value” when they are actually having to reduce the quality of services. They have not been able to offer the incentives they would like to. I was with the chief executive and leader of Bradford Council yesterday, and they need to be able to generate their own prosperity and wealth, but central government needs to recognise they can’t just survive on business rates for income. The risk is also that local authorities connect well with some parts of the communities, but not always all. We need to see more people investing in local decision-making, and the People’s Powerhouse wants to help local authorities. We can help them to discover more about what is happening in their local communities.

The People’s Powerhouse is holding a one-day event at Northern Commercials Stadium at Bradford City Football Club on 20 November. Confirmed speakers include Edna Robinson, Bradford Council leader, Cllr Susan Hinchliffe and CLES chief executive, Neil McInroy.

For more information about the event, visit the People’s Powerhouse website here.

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