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Government / Local politics

The Northern Powerhouse will be led by its cities – but it mustn't be limited to them

There is a widely held view that the Northern Powerhouse is all about creating a Greater London-sized urban system in the North. But Northern leaders themselves do not take this position – and that’s why devolution is so important to the North’s success.

Discussion of the Northern Powerhouse often starts with an assumption: that London is economically successful and so, therefore the North should try, in some way, to mimic what makes the capital successful. There are of course aspects of the capital that every city in the world would like to emulate – but London, for all its strengths, also has many shortcomings.

Our capital is a city of many contrasts. Its high levels of job creation sit alongside high rates of unemployment; its vast wealth sits alongside dire poverty. It has the lowest levels of individual well-being in the country and if it weren’t for immigration from overseas, London’s population would be in decline. There are many good reasons why British people don’t want to live in the capital that go beyond its preposterous house prices.

So instead of becoming more like London, the North needs to develop its strengths to complement those of the capital. The North won’t and can’t compete in the same market as London; its strengths lie is in its distinctive offer, and how unlike London it is. It needs to capitalise on the fact that it is a polycentric region of many cities, not just one – and it should look to examples overseas in order to arrange public investment to support that growth.

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One clear lesson from places like the South Netherlands or North Rhine-Westphalia is that the Northern Powerhouse needs to be built up from more than its major urban areas. The North has a wide range of assets that aren’t contained within its major cities: vital infrastructure such as ports and universities, as well as the softer but no less important assets – notably the four national parks – that are so attractive to the highly skilled individuals growing sectors rely on. It is precisely the interaction between these assets and the cities themselves that needs to be supported, as well as inter-city connectivity.

No doubt there are trade-offs to be made. It will not make sense to build bridges to nowhere, or to blow scarce R&D expenditure where it won’t have an impact. That’s perhaps why nobody has ever seriously argued such a thing.

But those trade-offs are simply better decided at that pan-northern level than in Whitehall. Already the North has shown itself capable of taking such tough decisions, by collaborating across political parties, and across city and regional geographies.

Because Northern leaders, of course, know all of this already. That’s why Rail North, Transport for the North and Business North all reach out beyond the major cities. That’s also why devolution is so important to this agenda. Not only is it right in principle that decisions relating to the North are made by the North, and in the North; but by ensuring those making the decisions fully understand the North’s economy, this approach will also make for better policy.

Luke Raikes is a research fellow at IPPR North. He tweets as @lukeraikes.
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