Cumbria needs strong leadership – and by implication a directly-elected mayor – if the county is to seize the opportunities presented by the Northern Powerhouse.
That’s the view of Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, who addressed the annual Cumbria Chamber of Commerce/South Lakeland Council partners’ dinner on Friday.
On his watch, Manchester became the first city in the country to sign a devolution deal with government. An attempt to set up a similar deal for Cumbria faltered last year.
Sir Richard told his audience in Kendal: “I’m not here to tell Cumbria what to do. It’s for you to make your own decisions.
“We’ve put ourselves in Greater Manchester where, more than anywhere else in the country, we can determine our future.
“If Cumbria wants some control of its future, you are going to have to address the questions of scale, capacity, capability, accountability and leadership.
“Without leadership you aren’t going anywhere.”
Manchester’s devolution deal will bring hundreds of millions of pounds of devolved funding for transport, housing, skills and health, and elections for a directly-elected mayor in May.
Sir Richard said: “Not one single element of the Greater Manchester deal was put on the table by central government. Every part of it were things we wanted and asked for.”
And he added that, far from taking away powers from local authorities, the elected mayor will assume powers currently wielded by quangos or central government.
Sir Richard has led Manchester City Council for 21 years, overseeing a transformation with developments such as Salford Quays and expansion of the Metrolink light rail system. He is regarded as one of the architects of the Northern Powerhouse.
His comments look set to reignite the debate on whether Cumbria should sign a devolution deal, which would involve having a county-wide elected mayor.
Failure to secure such a deal has been blamed for the disappointing response to Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership’s recent Growth Deal bid – it asked for £165m but will receive only £12.7m.
Around 240 people attended the annual partners’ dinner at the Castle Green Hotel.
They heard Chamber chief executive Rob Johnston outline some of its recent achievements.
He said: “In the last five years Cumbria Chamber of Commerce has delivered over £30m worth of projects. We’ve assisted 5,500 businesses, and created or safeguarded 4,500 jobs.”
The Chamber’s latest initiatives include the supply chain gateway, online webinar training, and an £8.5m workforce development project run in partnership with the county’s further education colleges.
It has just successfully re-tendered to deliver the Government’s New Enterprise Allowance programme to help unemployed people become self-employed, not only in Cumbria but across Lancashire and Merseyside.