If you haven’t read Phillip Blond’s brilliant essay for UnHerd on the Northern Powerhouse, then I’d enthusiastically recommend it. His argument is of huge importance not only to the North of England, but to flyover countries across the western world. The core point is that you can’t revive a region just by investing in its ‘places’ (i.e. buildings and infrastructure) – because none of that matters without the people who turn the potential of a place into reality. If a region is stripped of its entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists, artists and other change-makers, then what is left?
People not places: the real hope for a northern powerhouse
When we speak of a place being ‘left behind’, the people who leave it behind are, first and foremost, its very own, it’s ‘brightest and best’.
That’s why I fully agree with Phillip’s people-before-place prescription for northern revival. “The North,” he says, “has to become deeply attractive to the people it needs to bolster its technical, entrepreneurial and educational reach.”
Spot on, but investment in places – as long as it serves the primary aim of attracting people – has an important part to play. Moreover, the ‘who?’ of the decision-making process is just as important as the ‘what?’, ‘where?’ and ‘when?’ of the actual decisions .
It’s a point brought home in a piece by Tom Arnold for CityMetric:
“Saturday 23 June marks a significant anniversary in British political history. No, not that one: it’s four years since George Osborne, in a speech at Manchester’s Museum of Science & Industry, first coined the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’”
Real devolution to the North of England is in fact a bit older than that – starting with 2011 Localism Act and the launch of the City Deals process in the same year. Furthermore, its true driving force wasn’t George Osborne, but Greg Clark – who I had the honour of working for at the time. Nevertheless the Northern Powerhouse label was a touch of genius – and has long since passed from being a mere government slogan and into the full ownership of the North itself.
Westminster's broken: To rescue our British parliament, establish an English parliament
Arnold notes that “right now… Osborne’s promise of improving infrastructure to the point where traversing the North is the ‘equivalent of travelling around a single global city’ appears laughable”. However, he also acknowledges some real achievements:
“Its most significant achievement is the creation of Transport for the North (TfN), the UK’s first ever pan-Northern government body. Established in 2015 and granted statutory powers in April this year, TfN can now be regarded as the Powerhouse project’s civil service.”
Significantly, this new ‘civil service’ is reshaping the policy agenda it inherited from the actual (London-based) civil service. The previous “over-emphasis on the North’s largest cities, and Manchester in particular” has given way to a more holistic vision. This makes sense because no one city dominates the North to the degree that London dominates the South. A much better analogy is with Germany’s most important conurbation, which isn’t Berlin or Munich, but the Ruhr. With a population of over eight million, it is Germany’s industrial heartland and the third largest urban centre in the EU; but how many of its individual cities could you name?
It is surely right for the North of England – and especially its Liverpool-to-Leeds core conurbation – to aim for the same degree of cohesion.
Tom Arnold remarks that the “the Northern Powerhouse probably isn’t what George Osborne thought it would be”. But that’s the whole point of devolution: London politicians shouldn’t be making the big strategic decisions anymore.
One can’t expect the North’s natural leaders to stay in (or return to) the region if it isn’t in charge of its own destiny.