For decades now, the future of the north has been a fault line of British politics, but rarely has it enjoyed such a high profile position within the national political agenda. Ever since George Osborne announced his intention to build a “Northern Powerhouse”, improving the economy of the region has become a key measure of success – first for the coalition, and now for the Conservative government.
But despite the fact that the announcements have kept flowing – more devolution deals, Business for the North, Transport for the North – there is a danger. With so many policies aimed at the North as a whole, we risk losing the impetus generated by the Northern Powerhouse. By adopting a more generic approach which seeks to leave nowhere behind, we could in the end achieve very little.
The real strength of the Northern Powerhouse initiative when it was introduced was the clarity of purpose and vision that it appeared to encapsulate, and the focused questions that it prompted those across the policy world to ask. How could we create a “Greater London” urban system in the North, with the scale to compete globally on growth, trade and investment?
What would be the gains – locally, regionally and nationally – if the cluster of cities in the north could be better connected? If residents in Leeds and Manchester in particular, but also those of Liverpool, Sheffield and other surrounding towns, were brought together in a single labour market? What powers would those cities need in order to deliver on this vision, and at over what geography should they be wielded?
We did not have to wait long for answers, with a major new devolution deal announced for Greater Manchester, and infrastructure projects like High Speed 3 to better connect it with Leeds proposed to kick start delivering on this vision.
But as ever in politics, clarity comes at a cost, particularly when it means appearing to preference some places or people over others. The Chancellor had barely sat down following his speech introducing the concept, when voices all across the country began to ask “but what about us?”
Clearly this poses some significant political challenges for national Government, particularly when some of those voices belong to local branches of your own political party. The response has been to apply the initial principles of the Northern Powerhouse concept to other parts of the country (see proposals for the “Midlands Engine”).
But within the north, the government’s response, and that of local areas, has been to seek to widen the focus beyond the initial conception itself.
Most notably, the rolling out of “Manchester-like” devolution deals to other parts of the North has been badged as being a key part of the Northern Powerhouse. While important for individual places, these deals don’t necessarily move us any closer to achieving the initial aims of creating a “Greater London” style region in the North. That’s particularly so when some of the deals have been struck with whole regions like the North East and the Tees Valley – far bigger geographies which in reality have very little to do with the Northern Powerhouse as initially conceived.
And even if Liverpool and Sheffield will now benefit from devolved powers, we are still in a position where the Leeds City Region, one of the areas most fundamental to the Northern Powerhouse, is without a devolution deal – with local and national politicians bogged down in arguments regarding a pan-Yorkshire deal. Such a deal would do very little to support the Northern Powerhouse aim of creating an urban economy in the north with the scale to be capable of competing globally on growth, trade and investment.
Now with the emergence of new bodies pledging to represent different policy groups or areas for the entirety of the North, it’s beginning to feel like we are losing the very things that made the Northern Powerhouse a distinctive intervention in the first place.
The big risk here is that by prioritising policies for the north as a whole, we return to “jam spreading”, where resources are spread thinly across geographies that don’t reflect the way the economy actually works. This could also result in complex and opaque governance structures, in which those places with substantial growth potential are not sufficiently prioritised.
To be clear, the Northern Powerhouse should not be the sum total of government interventions in the North of England; but nor should we stretch the concept to include everyone – urban and rural, small towns and big cities. There are, as John Cridland outlined earlier this week, many unknowns in delivering on the initial vision for the Northern Powerhouse, and it will in some respects require a “leap of faith”.
But in amongst this uncertainty, there is one thing that we do know – the only way that the economy of the North of England will fulfil its potential is if its major urban areas improve their economic performance. If the Northern Powerhouse is to play a part in achieving this, then we must resist the pressure to make it about “the North” as a whole, and instead ensure it stays true to the original principles it was launched upon.
Ben Harrison is director of partnerships at the Centre for Cities.
This article originally appeared on the think tank’s blog.
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