The new boss of the organisation set up to boost Sheffield City Region’s economy says devolution is vital to rebuild trust after decades of “disproportionate” investment in the South East.
Sir Nigel Knowles said industrial decline in the North had led to power and influence being concentrated in Westminster - and devolution offered the chance to claw some of it back.
He spoke out after being announced as the new chairman of the Local Enterprise Partnership, the public-private body set to receive a raft of new powers from government, and £900m over 30 years, in return for an elected mayor.
Sir Nigel is co-chair of DLA Piper and the man responsible for turning it into the largest law firm in the world, with 4,000 lawyers in 80 offices in 30 countries.
He said: “I think what made Great Britain great 50 to 75 years ago was the northern cities. But the decline in industrial fortunes saw power and influence concentrated in Westminster and it’s not gone back.
“In many northern cities the public sector is a bigger employer than the private and that can’t be right. In part it’s due to disproportionate investment in the South East. As a result, over the years, it’s seen a lack of trust between Westminster and the people responsible for building and growing northern cities. Devolution offers the chance to empower northern cities so they can get on with things.
“There’s money there, but also a determination on the part of the public and private sector to work together in a huge partnership effort.”
Sir Nigel was born in Stocksbridge. He studied law at Sheffield University before joining Broomhead and Neale in 1978. He led several increasingly valuable mergers over the next four decades to create a global organisation.
Today he is based in London although he has family, including his mother, in Sheffield.
He added: “I joined a Sheffield firm and never left. I am a big proponent of this region and I will use every opportunity to speak up for it.
“I have contacts in London, across the UK and the world. I attend the World Economic Forum in Davos and travel quite a bit and know a lot of business people.
“Sheffield has got to get it’s message out and I’m well placed to do that.”
Sir Nigel officially starts on January 1, taking over from James Newman.
He was approached by the LEP and was offered the job after a couple of interviews.
He added: “It never occurred to me to do this job, I didn’t know it was available. But Sheffield has been good to me and I thought it was time to put something back.
“It’s so easy for people to be cynical about devolution and the whole Northern Powerhouse project. But I’m optimistic, I’m a big believer in business creating value that allows other things to be achieved.
“We don’t want a two-step country. Everyone should be given a fair chance. DLA Piper wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the North, it didn’t have a London office until 1991. It is absolutely loyal to its Northern offices.
“We are moving into new territory with devolution, we are going to be a lot more capable of doing things but we have got to make sure we consider the region as a whole.”