Roger Marsh interview: ‘North can be the solution for UK PLC, not part of the problem’

Roger Marsh. Picture James Hardisty
Roger Marsh. Picture James Hardisty

A newly-established ‘Council for the North’ will give civic and business leaders a chance to advise Ministers on how to close the economic divide. Rob Parsons spoke to the man chosen to lead the organisation.

Born and raised in Stockton-on-Tees and spending most of his life working in Leeds, it was ironically during a two-year stint at the heart of the Westminster establishment that Roger Marsh was struck by a worrying truth about the North of England.

His secondment at the Cabinet Office, managing change at the highest levels of government, fell between 2007 and 2009 as the UK and the rest of the global financial system was plunged into chaos by the collapse of the US’s largest investment bank, Lehman Brothers, triggering a long economic downturn.

A senior partner at professional services giant PwC for most of his four decade career, Mr Marsh spent a lot of time on business recovery and turnaround, giving him an insight into the workings of the northern economy.

But reflecting on his time at the Cabinet Office, he tells The Yorkshire Post: “Whilst I was there working at the centre of government, it got me thinking what the hell happened to the North during my own working life? What would happen if we couldn’t continue to support it in the way we were then, the problem that was latent in terms of a lack of investment would become patent very quickly.”

The issue of how best to improve the North’s prospects during a period of austerity, attracting investment to allow the region to make the most of its many assets, has since been central to his work.

Becoming chairman of the recently-formed Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), where local authorities and businesses join forces to promote economic growth, in 2013, he is now widening his sights.

It was revealed this month that Mr Marsh will head up the NP11, the newly-created body bringing together all the North’s Local Enterprise Partnerships to work with and advise the Government on how to tackle the historic north-south divide.

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Announcing the new body, Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry described it as bringing together business voices in a way not seen since King Edward IV set up the Council for the North in 1472.

It will be made up of six LEPs east of the Pennines and five to the west, who often find themselves as rivals for funding and investment. “We compete with each other most of the time helpfully, and some of the times maybe not so, because when you are bidding for money you are going to make your case the hardest,” Mr Marsh admits. But he adds: “Where NP11 comes in is providing an agreed framework which means we will helpfully compete but in the same breath meaningfully collaborate on those northern-wide issues that we need to push hard for.”

As examples of projects where northern leaders have already put their local concerns aside for the greater good, he cites the creation of Transport for the North and a Northern Powerhouse investment fund which has already brought in £100m in 18 months. “Would it be deluded to say all in the garden is rosy, it would be deluded in my view but I do believe there are grounds for optimism and genuine confidence about our appetite for the North’s role in a transforming and modern Britain.”

Though West Yorkshire is currently lagging behind the rest of the North on securing a devolution deal, as arguments rage about its configuration, Mr Marsh says it has still achieved some notable recent successes.

He points to the £1bn transport fund the combined authority has at its disposal and the award of “the largest skills capital deal in the country”.

Pointing to the £60m state-of-the-art college being built in Leeds city centre and the University of Leeds’s Nexus building, he says this activity is being replicated elsewhere in the county.

“We are doing a lot of it, but with devolution we would be able to do even more. It is about trying to find a geography that everyone will support.”

Though there is widespread scepticism about the commitment of Theresa May’s Government to the Northern Powerhouse project launched by former Chancellor George Osborne, Mr Marsh points to the 2016 Northern Powerhouse strategy document created by his successor Philip Hammond as evidence to the contrary.

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He believes this strategy is still alive and wants NP11 to have a role in its success, based on the belief that “when it comes to economic performance for UK PLC the North is a significant part of the solution, not actually the problem that we in the North often make ourselves look like”.

“Without being too unkind, we complain about unfairness, about imbalances, about being left out,” he says. “I understand that but we need to turn it on its head and say ‘we in the North have a huge offer, but it comes with a flip side that to deliver that offer we have a some fairly significant asks’.”

Perhaps not surprisingly for someone with a professional services background, he has a couple of pithy shorthands to describe his mission. He describes the five ‘Ps’ which are key to securing the future the North wants - powers, pounds, patience, persistence and partnerships.

And he believes strongly in the ‘one plus four equals ten effect’, where public funds can be leveraged with several times more from the private sector to ‘double your money’ in terms of economic growth. The hope is that by doing this the North can move from being dependent on wealth generated in London to sustain it to being a net contributor to the national economy.

“I am very committed to this because I think we owe it to generations to come to have the sort of quality of life I have been able to enjoy to date. I am very confident this is something we can do but not alone, and there are absolutely no grounds for complacency. It is a big task but there is a big prize at the end, and it is worth the fight.

“There are things the private sector can do and things the public sector can do. Both of those things are good, but by working in partnership we can do and are doing extraordinary things.”