Andy Haldane

Checking In With Andy Haldane

Andy Haldane, chief executive at the Royal Society of Arts, talks about his time as a British economist and his North East roots…

Elysia Fryer

Editor at Luxe

Checking in with Andy Haldane about his efforts to grow and nurture the creative and cultural sectors and how his North East roots have kept him grounded…

Can you tell us a little bit about what you do day-to-day at the Royal Society of Arts?

I’m Chief Executive here at the Royal Society of Arts, which is a 270-year-old organisation committed to social improvement. We are a member-based organisation, so have 31,000 of them spread right across the world.

On a day-to-day basis I am looking at and overseeing the next chapter in what is a long and illustrious RSA story. To give you an example, some of the things I’m thinking about this morning… we have the Convention of the North coming up, which this year is being hosted in Leeds.

There we will publish a manifesto and one of those commitments is about an idea that we’ve been working up for a ‘northern creative corridor’ – a pan regional initiative to nurture the cultural and creative industries across the north, from west to east coast.

Cultural Attractions

That involves, among others, the mayors of all of the relevant regions including North Tyne, Teesside, Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Liverpool. The role we can play on that, working alongside partners like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, is to think about how we can grow the creative and cultural sector in a way that creates jobs, that nurtures skills and is fantastic for the health and wellbeing of people.

There are some fantastic existing creative and cultural attractions in the North East, for example, like the BALTIC and the Angel of the North. There’s already a real hub of activity in the region, and there are already plans as part of the North East Mayoral Combined Authority, to make culture and the creative sector even bigger and more important. 

On Monday I was up in Durham to chair a meeting of leaders across the seven local authorities, to think about the economic strategy with the North East Mayoral Combined Authority. It’s about how we secure the best jobs, the highest incomes, the lowest energy bills and the best health outcomes, for example.

How important is it for you to travel to work with local authorities, governments, businesses and organisations? 

I’m coming up to two years at the RSA. Prior to that I was man and boy at the Bank of England. I was there for 32 years,  which is frightening for me.

A big part of trying to understand what was going on with the economy was to travel around the length and breadth of the UK, speaking to businesses, community groups, charities and local government – to understand how the economy was working, or in some cases not working.

Getting out and meeting people was the best part of my job. I was always bowled over by their energy, passion and commitment to the local area – no more so than the North East.

Although we can feel a bit down in the dumps here in the UK when viewed from a distance, when you go to places like the North East, there’s still this great sense of energy and appetite to do better. I love experiencing that first hand. We work closely with the universities in the North East. The region is blessed with the diversity of its universities.

What can you tell us about your involvement in the government’s Levelling Up Advisory Council? 

Between my 32 years selling interest rates at the Bank of England, and joining the RSA, I got brought in to help out with the government’s work on ‘Levelling Up’, which is about improving the fortunes of the UK regions and nations. 

As someone born in the North East and brought up in Yorkshire, I know those sharp differences in economic performance between different parts of the country, and I always wanted to see what we can do to close them.

So the opportunity to help out with that effort for six months was great. The culmination of that was the white paper that the government published in 2022, setting out their plan for ‘Levelling Up’.

Of course, writing a document doesn’t by itself do anything to ‘level up’ the UK, but more has happened than what some people give the government credit for, but equally far less than needs to happen. Good progress has been made when it comes to delegating more powers to the local level.

So far, powers are a necessary ingredient for ‘Levelling Up’, but much more is needed so that those extra jobs, higher incomes, better health outcomes, transport links and broadband can improve.

Can you give us a short story about your life and career to date? 

As I’m not so young anymore, I’ll try and keep it short! I was born in Sunderland – my father was born in Sunderland, my mother was born in Newcastle, so it definitely made me rooted in the North East.

My father was a musician at the time and travelled around a lot. Eventually we set up camp a little further south, in Yorkshire. I went off to university in Sheffield. I was the first person in my family to do A Levels, never mind a degree. From a pretty young age, I had an interest in why the economy wasn’t working for people.

This was the early 80s and it was pretty grim times. Economically and socially, it was a fractured time and that kind of piqued my interest. Growing up, the poor outcomes were visible by the families of the kids I went to school with.

I wanted to figure out what was going wrong and how we could make it right.  The result was me going off to study economics and then landing at the Bank of England.

It was fate!

Fate works in wonderful ways and the bank absolutely did scratch the itch and help me to think about those questions on the economy.

Traditionally, the Bank didn’t take on people like me – by which I mean people from redbrick universities who did economics – they focused on different universities (two in particular) and people with more generalist skills.

The Bank was changing, for the better, and I was lucky to be arriving on the job market at that time. Me landing there was like me landing on Mars, and even 32 years in, I still thought of myself a little bit as the outsider on the inside.

I always thought that the most useful role I could play was to challenge the orthodoxy. Not all of the time – because then you get a name for yourself! But sometimes you have to act with a degree of independence and say, ‘I know we’re doing X, but actually I think we should be doing Y.

How did you find the transition from the Bank of England to your new role at the RSA?

I love the Bank and I’ll always love the Bank, so being able to leave on good terms was important to me. That made it a relatively painless experience transitioning.

At the Bank, I’d worked on a wide range of issues, many of them well outside of the four corners of central banking as it were, and moving to the RSA was covering similar issues but with fewer constraints. 

Although my career was and is in the public sector, I’ve always made a point of sharing my time with businesses, communities and charities. The best things happen when different sectors come together to work in partnership.

I think it’s the secret source of success in the UK. That’s what I see in the North East right now. If it’s all government led, that won’t work; if it’s all business led, that won’t work; you need to work together and this role allows me to do that to an even greater degree.

The RSA is my full time thing, but I also work on other wider projects. I’m a professor at a bunch of universities, I write for the Financial Times and I chair the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield. They give me that cross sector focus and allow me to join up the skills I use as part of the day job. 

Do you still have close connections to the North East and how does family life look for you now?

I still have family and friends up in the North East, my football club (Sunderland) is there and I maintain a healthy interest amongst the ups and downs! I have three kids and only one of them is a Sunderland supporter. I’m not sure what that says.  

We live in Surrey, a fairly easy commute into London. I try to go in most days, for the simple reason that I love it. Ours is a beautiful 250-year-old building just off The Strand in the buzzy West End. And, COVID-19 was difficult for me.

It brought home for me how much I missed travelling around the country and meeting people – it just crushes your creativity. I hadn’t realised how much I got from that experience until I was starved of it. If we are to resist the rise of the robot and make the best of AI, our creative instincts as humans will be the most important thing.

We need to nurture that as best we can. Work is a huge part of my life, and it takes up a lot of my time, but in terms of unwinding and ‘switching off’, I’m a big cricket fan – now it’s much more watching from the sofa than playing. 

I find escape in spending time on the Kent coast. Having been born by the sea, I still have that yearning for being by the coast. We have a little place down there, and we try to spend time there as a family when we can.

On Ambition and Passion

It’s a beautiful, unchanged place. I’ve been going there for more than 10 years now and no one has ever asked me what I do for a living, and I love that. In London, the second question after your name is ‘what do you do for a living?’.

Down there, nobody really cares, it’s not relevant to them. I love the escape. The sea is also incredibly calming and creative.  People and places are great levellers. And I get that when I visit friends and family back in the North East and Yorkshire.

I never want to lose sight of where I came from, the people that I grew up with, and the things that matter to them. That is what led me to where I am. 

Whatever you do, pursuing the things that you are passionate about, whether they are badly paid or well-paid, it’s really important because you spend so much of your life working. You can’t afford not to enjoy it and have an appetite for it.