1. Governance
March 8, 2016

“There is no such thing as the North”: why devolution must be to the region's cities

By Ben Harrison

In recent months we’ve seen the focus on boosting northern city regions begin to expand to a focus on “the North” as a region.

This could be useful from the perspective of planning some pan-regional transport improvements, or the marketing of investment opportunities across the wider region. But such a large geography is ultimately not a helpful basis to devise and deliver the majority of economic policy interventions that could make a difference to the lives of people living in the area.

Here’s why:

1. The North is not a single political or economic unit…

Where does the North begin? North of the Watford Gap of course, or so goes the old joke.

Seriously though, if we are to begin thinking about a pan-North approach to economic development, defining the geography over which we’re talking about is a must.

Although not uncontested, let’s say we are happy to use the former government offices for the regions geography, as defined at the outset – that is, the North West, the North East and Yorkshire & the Humber. This “North” is an area home to around 14.5m people, dispersed across a massive 37,000km2 area.

To put those figures in context, that equates to the best part of double the population of Greater London, albeit spread over seven times the geographic space. It’s also about three times the population of Scotland, in about half the geographic space.

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Yet the North is neither one functional economy like London, nor a single political unit like Scotland.

Although it can be argued that Greater London suffers from its own inadequate political boundaries, the capital is demonstrably a single, contiguous built up urban environment. It provides a reasonable approximation of the geography in which a majority of residents live and work, and a tier of governance that people can identify with.

The same cannot possibly be said of the North when, for example, just 4 per cent of working residents in Greater Manchester commute to the neighbouring Liverpool City Region; while only 1 per cent make the daily commute from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to Greater Manchester. Comparing the North to London is like comparing “the South” to the Liverpool City Region – why would you do it?

Scotland, by contrast, may be more rural and have a more dispersed population; but it has a far stronger, more cohesive historical, political and cultural identity than the North of England, as has been demonstrated by the rise of Scottish Nationalism over recent decades.

Whatever shared heritage or culture those of us from the North may share, it’s hard to observe anything approaching a “northern nationalism” that could compare. Indeed the identity politics of the North are often far from homogenous – just ask a Scouser how he feels about a Manc, a Mackem about a Geordie, or David Cameron about the people of Yorkshire.

2. And pretending it is one would make affecting change more difficult, not less

There are 15 separate urban areas in the North boasting a daytime population above 250,000. There are many more towns and villages of far smaller populations, each with their own economic history, as well as challenges and opportunities for the future. In total, these settlements are spread across 70 different administrative tiers, including counties, unitary authorities and district councils.

Without even thinking about the range of universities, Local Enterprise Partnerships or local Chambers of Commerce located across the North, to what extent will it ever really be possible, let alone helpful, for all of these constituent bodies to speak with one voice? If it was, what would that voice ask for, and how would it deliver if a positive response was elicited from government?

The fact is that, barring things like major inter-city transport connectivity or the marketing of investment opportunities across the wider region, it makes very little sense to think of “the North” – or for that matter “the South” or “the Midlands” – as tiers through which to devise and implement the majority of economic policy. And the risk is that, in trying to do so, we will take significant political capital, capacity and time away from the kind of interventions that could make a difference at the more local level.

Making the most of all of the assets of the North is of course important. But in seeking to do so we must not lose sight of the fact that there is no single political or economic geography of the North, or that economic change will ultimately best be affected at the level at which the economy actually works.

That’s why the move to more city-region combined authorities as the primary unit for local economic development policy is so important – and why we mustn’t be seduced by a whole region approach to all of the economic challenges facing places in the North.

Ben Harrison is director of communications & development at the Centre for Cities.

This article was originally published on the think tank’s blog

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