West Cumbria needs to secure a devolution deal and take control of its own economic destiny, a gathering of businesses leaders was told.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told members of Britain’s Energy Coast Business Cluster (BECBC) at its AGM that local authorities needed to follow the example set by businesses across the region and work more closely together to secure Government funding.

Sighting the recent success of The Borderlands Growth deal – which attracted £345m-worth of funding from the UK and Scottish governments – Mr Murison told in-Cumbria he could see no reason why West Cumbria could not secure similar investment if its councils worked together.

With detailed plans for The Borderlands set to be released in the summer, and work afoot on a growth deal from Barrow, South Lakeland and Lancaster councils under the Lancaster and South Cumbria Economic Region banner, he said a similar devolution deal for West Cumbria was recognition of Cumbria’s three interconnected economic regions.

Speaking after the meeting Mr Murison – who heads a partnership charged with rebalancing the economy of the north with the south – revealed he would be pushing the devolution agenda following conversations with businesses in the region.

“Certainly, businesses in the area are very enthusiastic about devolution and have charged me with going out and seeking to see what consensus we can build,” he said.

“The Government has demonstrated its willingness to think about how it can unlock growth in places where places are prepared to work together.

"I think we’re seeing a lot more businesses in West Cumbria are acting and coming together to make real investment.

“Look at Sellafield and their £10m a year social and economic and social programme in the wider area – that equates to £100m over 10 years. With that sort of long-term commitment from a business like Sellafield, my question why would Government not want to co-invest and come in and show what can be delivered.

“I’ll certainly be working to persuade Jake Berry, Northern Powerhouse Minister, and other ministers in Government, that West Cumbria is the right place to do a devolution deal if there is the support from local authorities after the May elections.”

But he said the key would be whether Allerdale and Copeland councils would be willing to work together.

“After the local elections we’ll know who we’re dealing with on the political side,” he said.

“We stand ready as a partnership once those elections are completed to work with whoever has been successful both in Copeland, where we work very closely with the council but also with colleagues in Allerdale, to see what might be possible.

“When I talk to businesses, they don’t recognise the divide between Whitehaven and Workington and I don’t think the local politicians should do either.

“I think anyone standing in the local elections would be well placed to think about what they’re offering in terms of the economic future of this place.

"There are many people standing who have indicated to us they are prepared to work in partnership across boundaries.

“It would be wrong of us as a partnership, which is committed to encouraging devolution to not be saying to those areas that we think will benefit from it – whether it be a deal from Government for a collection of towns or potentially, eventually, a combined authority.

"I think those can develop really positive opportunities in this part of Cumbria and would allow districts not just to work together to share services but also to take on a wider economic place making role. I think it is absolutely needed.”

Mr Murison said the success of a devolution deal for Manchester, showed would could be achieved.

But he added that Cumbria needed to accept the reality that it was a series of outward-looking economic areas reflected by travel to work patterns.

“You have the Borderlands region, which is outward looking into Scotland and Northumberland; you have the Lancaster and South Cumbria city region, which is really focused around Lancaster as a city, but with key economic assets such as BAE Systems in Barrow.

“You’ve then got West Cumbria in the middle.

“In reality, the future is about those three economic regions which are outward looking and not constrained by Cumbria’s identity and by administrative boundaries – but working closely together.

“People have been too bothered about administrative boundaries, the names of organisations, about structures and we need to be much more focused on the economy and what businesses want – which is skills and growth and the opportunity to really lead the Government’s Industrial Strategy rather than be at the back of the queue.

“This is a huge opportunity for the county and that requires the county to think of itself as being absolutely at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse project, rather than on the edge or the fringes. Because it isn’t.”

Mr Murison also spoke to members about the need to engage with young people to raise aspirations and pursue careers, and stressed the importance of improving transport infrastructure – particularly to support the recently-approved £165m West Cumbria Mining project.

He also said that West Cumbria should not see itself as a “one trick pony” with nuclear and should collaborate with other areas of the North to provide the Government with leadership on its energy policy.

He also repeated criticism of the Government for failing to save the £15bn Moorside nuclear power station.

The meeting also heard from the new chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, Dr Tim Stone.

He revealed plans to grow the NIA team in areas such as policy, campaigning and support for members to help them export their products and services to overseas markets.

He urged Cumbria to shout more about its expertise in nuclear, in particular decommissioning

And Mr Stone said the biggest challenge facing the nuclear sector was not economic returns – but trust.

“We have to have investment, but the lack of trust in the UK is colossal,” he said.

“There needs to be trust and confidence in Government, regulators and communities. Brexit is causing a massive distraction, but the biggest thing we have to do is to rebuild that trust and confidence with investors.

“We all have to drive this. We can't keep asking the Government to bail out of sign a cheque, we have to come up with solutions.”

BECBC chair Ivan Baldwin reflected on the organisation's 15th year – having grown from 24 members to more than 300.

Over the 15 years, 718 companies had been involved, with continuous members including React Engineering, Lakes College, WYG, Shepley and Atkins.

He said: “There has to be a real focus on getting down to business. We have put a lot of time and effort in getting this organisation to the table and 2019 is about how we turn the meetings and relationships into action.”

He added that a collaboration with businesses in France was “in train” in addition to links already forged with South Korea, Japan and Spain.

Meanwhile, the AGM also saw the election of three members to the board.

Charlotte Horner, of The Spencer Group, was elected communications and engagement director; Diane Richardson, of Balfour Beatty, member engagement director and Peter Fleming, of Business Doctors, a general director.

Three board members, Liz Bowe, of Pactec, John Berry, of Sellafield Ltd, and David Henderson of Shepley, who had served as vice chair of the organisation, all stood down.