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Improving skills, infrastructure and innovation lie at the heart of closing the divide between the South East and the rest of the UK - and of making Manchester more competitive on the global stage. 

Addressing our latest Vital Topics debate Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said Manchester had “lit the way” in terms of its revival over the past 10 to 15 years. But it was now time to talk about “what comes next” in terms of making the city region even more competitive on the global stage.

“Countries around the world are setting out their stall as places to invest and that competition has never been stronger,” she stressed.

Fairbairn said there were a number of priorities that Manchester should focus on. “I think probably the biggest is people and skills and preparing for the fourth industrial revolution, particularly digital skills. It is great to be standing here at this University where graphene was developed, and which shows the potential this part of the country has for advanced manufacturing and new tech capability. But we need the skills. Collaboration between government, business, universities and schools is a huge priority.”

Transport

She was joined on stage by Sir Richard Lambert, Chairman of The British Museum and former Director-General of the CBI and editor of the Financial Times.

He singled out transport as the city’s top priority for raising its game further, but said it faced the bias of the Treasury towards the South East. “The Treasury look at it and say ‘if we put a pound into the South East we get £1.40 back’ whereas the returns are lower in the North West. It’s a catch 22. If you don’t put the money in you won’t get the returns, so the Treasury has got to do it.”

Devolution

Both agreed that devolution represented a huge opportunity for Greater Manchester in terms of tackling these priorities.

“We are coming up to the first anniversary of having an elected mayor and it is an important moment to reflect on how successful and how powerful devolution can be,” added Fairbairn. “We are seeing regions across the UK developing their own identity and the Northern Powerhouse is a fantastic example of that. I think one of the questions now is how far we should be developing regional specialisations and how the power of devolution can unlock specialist needs around skills.

“From a business point of view devolution can be very powerful. But the big message I get as I meet members across the country is that regions need to organise themselves. Central government is not going to do this for us, we have to do it ourselves from the bottom-up.”

Lambert added that leadership would continue to play a major role in this regard. “What Manchester has had in the last few years is inspirational leadership, and I am pleased to see the way power is now being devolved to the city. I think that is really important.”

Brexit

Meanwhile Fairbairn said Brexit remained a big issue for CBI members, mostly around the uncertainty created around tariffs, customs and regulations.

“The transition arrangement which we are almost agreed on is a very big step forward. We now need to move into the shape of that final deal and businesses want to know what it is going to look like. In this part of the world there is a real focus on global markets and keeping the region growing fast.”

Full potential

Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, introduced the debate. She stressed that efforts to address regional imbalances were not just about realising the full potential of cities such as Manchester and regions like the North West. “Unless we grow the economies outside the South East then the UK as a whole will not do well.”

The debate, supported by BNY Mellon and Hainan Airlines, was facilitated by Andy Bounds, North of England correspondent and enterprise editor at the Financial Times.

The event was also covered by the Financial Times.