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Guest opinion: Vertu Motors chief executive lends support to devolved powers and resources in the North

Robert Forrester

By Robert Forrester, Vertu Motors chief executive

The Northern Powerhouse is an imaginative and compelling way of describing an ambition to rebalance England’s economy between North and South.

For businesses like Vertu Motors plc, which operate across the entire UK, it is essential that the North is able to lever its many advantages to reassert the importance and dynamism that gave it such success in years gone by.

If the Northern Powerhouse is to work it must be about more than re-organising political structures. I welcome the prospect of devolved power and resources to the North East, Tees Valley, Sheffield and Manchester, the first four of over 30 bids to the Government. I hope that the councils ratify the deals and that Parliament votes through the laws which allow the devolution to take place.

Alongside the new structures, new attitudes must also take hold. For example, the North has, by tradition, been a place that big manufacturing businesses have dominated entire towns. The recent news of change in the steel industry demonstrates the effect such large employers can have on communities when world markets are hit by a downturn. We need to allow our natural entrepreneurial flair to flourish once again and encourage new thinking about the wider economy.

As one of the founders and the CEO of a retail and services business I am keen that these important sectors are not driven by business located elsewhere. When Vertu Motors was established in 2006, we took a conscious decision to locate in North East England and we took our proposition to the City, which invested with gusto. Far from being thought of as a fish out of water, the idea of a new business venture based elsewhere in the UK appealed to the City. Being a plucky Northern firm promoting opportunity for investors to make money is no bad thing; it channels the nation’s private resources away from the South and provides opportunities to invest and grow.

So often the Northern Powerhouse conversation has been about public investment, and we need that in spades. But it should also be used as a construct to persuade the City to look to the opportunities presented by businesses in our great cities and counties.

From truly small beginnings in a one room office in Newcastle in 2006, Vertu Motors plc now has 119 motor retail outlets of which 44 are in the North of England employing 1497 people. It has also chosen to locate its core operating functions at a new Central Support Centre representing a purchase and refurbishment investment of £2million. We were proud that the Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton MP agreed to open it in October.

When the devolution phase of the Northern Powerhouse is truly underway it can really explore some of the great roadblocks to progress. We need better transport links in the North; it makes no economic sense that a train journey to visit my dealerships in Manchester should take longer than one to visit investors in the City (and with no wifi on board!).

We have a skills shortage in key areas; too many of our most talented young people leave the region. We also need to stimulate the appetite for young people to work in sectors like mine. A few years ago I took on a young man who had trained as a bricklayer but couldn’t get a job. He was allowing unemployment to become a way of life because nobody encouraged him to think differently and look at other sectors. Last year he became one of my firm’s top salesmen and earned around £50,000. These things and others can come under the orbit of our new, powerful, Northern Mayors.

For now our private sector economy should use the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse initiative to make its case to investors and customers. Hopefully, the politicians who eventually deliver the project will also see the importance of a diverse business base in which enterprise can flourish and big industry is only one part and not necessarily dominating the conversation

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