Today’s Convention of the North comes not a moment too soon. Although it will go unnoticed by many, it will prove to be even more significant than when George Osborne stood up in the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry back in 2014 and called for a Northern Powerhouse.
This is not to underestimate the galvanising effect of Osborne’s speech and subsequent initiatives – but there are three reasons why a convention involving cross-party political leadership, business, academia and civil society could be so much more significant in the long-term.
First, the Convention of the North is autonomous. Osborne was always resented and even rejected in some quarters simply for being an outsider coming North to tell us what we needed. His political agenda was never far from view – much like the £200m A556 highways improvements that now adorn his former constituency. And his vision of a “new London in the North” was clearly imported from personal experience in the City and the policy-wonks at LSE, but struck very few chords outside of Manchester and Leeds.
Interestingly, Osborne and his counterpart Jim O’Neill were often challenged about the need for Northern leaders to come together and speak with a single voice and they consistently argued it was unnecessary. It has taken the new mayors in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Tees Valley to recognise this need and drive it forward. And it is this autonomy that will give it far greater credibility, particularly at the grassroots: a bottom-up credibility that Westminster should find it hard to ignore.
Secondly, the Convention of the North is deliberately inclusive. Not only does it bring together political leaders from across the parties, it recognises from the outset the crucial role of business, academia and civil society in driving the future of the North.
Unlike the male, stale and pale photo opportunities that came to characterise Osborne’s Powerhouse photo shoots, or the big business lobby that is the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, the Convention has an altogether different approach. The fact that its first meeting is in Newcastle is telling. Gone are the days when the North East was a marginal concern: in post-Brexit Britain, every place matters and the Convention would do well to develop a vision for the North which draws on all its members across all sectors and place.
Accusations of jam-spreading will no doubt abound, but trickle-down approaches (aka agglomeration) have clearly failed too many – and the North needs a more sustainable and inclusive model of growth than either Manchester or Leeds can ever deliver alone.
The main reason the Convention is the most significant step forward concerns governance. Significant work has gone into preparing discussion papers on skills, transport and Brexit, and on these vital matters Northern leaders will now attempt to find common cause and a single voice. This has been sorely lacking for a decade.
Of course, local and combined authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and latterly metro-mayors have all been busy developing and implementing plans but they have failed to do so at sufficient scale. England is alone in the developed world in having no regional governance, and there is strong academic evidence that this lack is the root cause of our productivity problems.
As Phil McCann argues, with so much run from Whitehall, we simply don’t have the systems of co-ordination to enable regions like the North to navigate the vicissitudes of the global economy. England is too big and diverse, our city-regions are too small. Transport for the North already exemplifies what pan-Northern collaboration can achieve, even with one hand tied behind its back; and although it does not yet purport to carry any jurisdictional weight, surely the Convention is a first step towards some form of more organised and accountable collaboration.
Yesterday, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, made a powerful and optimistic speech about the potential of devolution to counter the paralysis and polarisation caused by Brexit. At the RSA we have long held the view that decentralisation is key to transforming public services and unlocking a more inclusive economy.
But devolved powers and finances require strong local accountability and I have recently set out a forward looking agenda for a Northern Powerhouse 2.0. A Convention of the North – supported by a deliberative Northern Citizens Assembly – perhaps provides a template for deeper democratic reform.
It will be easy to decry this tentative first step and there will be vested interest both within and outside the North that would happily see it stutter and fail – but perish those who doubt the potential of this significant step forward. If Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse achieved nothing other than to awaken Northern leaders to take back control themselves, then it will have been more than worth it.
Ed Cox is the director of public services & communities at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce.
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