People not places: the real hope for a northern powerhouse
The "Angel of the North" statue. Credit: Stu Forster/Getty Images   

It’s hard to characterise the North of England as flyover country, since relatively speaking so few actually fly over it. The North has nonetheless the sense of being bypassed at great height for locations more pressing, and this marks the North as a betwixt and between destination that absent its great football teams, or the lake district or the stunning beauty of say Liverpool, one might never quite get round to visiting.

The origin of this flyover designation for the North is both economic and cultural. Yet the standard explanation is almost exclusively the former, with nearly all analysis and policy focus directed at economic decline. Broadly speaking let us call this the ‘place hypothesis’ – that if only the North had what it needed as a functioning economic ‘place,’ then equity with the South of England would be restored, and decline reversed.

It is certainly the case that the North has woefully insufficient connectivity, with poor railways, roads and tunnels, and it has acre upon acre of sub-standard 19th century working-class housing.  And some might additionally argue that it lacks investment, interest and the radical governance/devolution structures to turn it all around. But if we really want to understand the North’s decline then focusing solely on the economic is a mistake, as most of this only really arose as a problem during the last forty years or so, whereas the North’s decline began much, much earlier.

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If we wanted to maintain the ‘place’ explanation, we might with more merit argue something like the following. The decline of the North is probably due to its unprecedented global and regional success in the 18th and 19th centuries – the massive innovations in commodity production and its transportation focused all the investment and expertise on production in industries like shipbuilding, cotton, coal, and steel. Then when, after the First World War, the global economy shifted and northern British commodities became uncompetitive against both new international competition and revived trade barriers, the North proved incapable of adapting.

Instead it was the South that moved towards services and complex manufacture like planes and cars. And in adapting to this structural shift it was the South that captured, through deploying ideas and innovation, the future of production. Whereas the North, overly invested in a now defunct and low skill raw production model, remained too far from the global innovative frontier for it to catch up.

I think all of the above is true, but I also believe it is insufficient in explaining how the North became “flyover” territory. For it was not so much a dearth of place, but more of people. After all, the Industrial Revolution happened in Northern England, and not elsewhere, largely because of the people.

It is the loss of an active and engaged middle and upper class – highly educated, high status and heavily invested in the private as well as the public sector – that propelled the North into a century of decline

The rightly celebrated work of economic historians like Robert C Allen may highlight the material explanations for the Northern English location of the Industrial Revolution – the enormous coal deposits lying near the surface, and the high wages and cheap energy that created an incentive to develop machines that replaced expensive people with inexpensive coal. But the North of the 18th century also had decentered capital, lots of opportunistic merchants looking to invest, and a phenomenal mass grouping of innovators and inventors in Northern towns who founded small scientific and technical clubs in places like Wigan and Preston, as well as the big cities such as Manchester and Liverpool. This is the mix of human talent and local capital that allowed the North to give birth to the industrial age.

It is the loss of an active and engaged middle and upper class – highly educated, high status and heavily invested in the private as well as the public sector – that propelled the North into a century of decline. And it is getting back the talented, technical, entrepreneurial and artistic classes that can alone reverse it. All of which means that much of current policy towards the North which is almost exclusively place, needs to become people based if it is to have any meaningful and subsequent effect.

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This is not just conjecture. In a brilliant paper based on the study of ancestral surnames and birth and mortality data, Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins conclude “that the decline of the North is mainly explained by selective outmigration of the educated and talented.”1. The decline of the north is to be found in its makeup of people, not in its place.

This is best understood by recognising the scale of inward migration. Between 1800 and 1900 the population of northern England quadrupled, with massive immigration from Scotland, Wales, and most especially Ireland. But this was mostly the inflow of relatively unskilled labour that came to work in the new industries.

Fascinatingly, it appears the outflow of the educated and higher skilled from the North had already begun in the mid-19th Century, even when the Northern industries were prospering. Perhaps because this commerce did not demand or require high levels of skill or education those endowed in both went South were their services were in demand. So, as Clark and Cummins put it, as the educated left “the North retained its unskilled population, and attracted unskilled migrants, leading to a decline in the average skill and education level of the Northern population.”

Largely as a result of this prolonged and selective migration out of the North, the North is now at the level of population share that it had before the Industrial Revolution, with much of its population remaining below the average skill and educational levels of the country and especially the south. The resulting impacts on the multiple inequities of health, wealth and opportunity remain to this day for all to see.

The more that the North escapes its working-class monoculture by bringing back the people who left, the more the working classes will benefit

So much of flyover country – from the American mid-western rust belt to these abandoned Northern towns – has something of this character. They share an over-concentration on a single type or pattern of industry and its this lack of socio-economic diversity that makes them so vulnerable to economic shocks.

The question therefore, is what can be done to renew these areas? A clear lesson is that while the hard infrastructure “ask” of the North is no doubt needed, even if the investment is forthcoming it is unlikely on its own to narrow the gap between North and South. There must additionally be a focus on human capital: attracting it, retaining it and creating it locally. And politicians and policymakers concerned with regional inequality need to recognise that the working class monoculture that exists in many of the most deprived areas in the North is also part of what has cut off the white working class off from opportunity.

Just as racial apartheid is rightly abhorred, we now need to turn that disgust into revulsion at the class apartheid that marks too much of the North too strongly. We need to build back into these areas institutions that mix classes, peer groups and career pathways to create a socio-economically diverse North that can better look after, nurture and educate its people.

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The “build it and they will come” approach is not sufficient to help these isolated communities – the shiny new buildings erected in cities like Manchester and Liverpool are no substitute for a genuine focus on creating, restoring and, of course, recognising northern culture. The North has to become deeply attractive to the people it needs to bolster its technical, entrepreneurial and educational reach. And culture in its broadest sense is the pull for such people, as it is what makes a place worth living in. But educated families and skilled people won’t remain in, or relocate to, the North unless it has the institutions and culture they expect to enjoy.

Our northern universities, particularly the higher performing ones, remain introverted institutions largely focused on their own development while ignoring the wider social and economic renewal that  they could both facilitate and benefit from. And we need even more desperately and urgently to save northern children from the long tail of underperforming, below average schools that endlessly depress the aspiration and achievement of their pupils – and probably one of the things that could help them is a mass influx of middle class families and their children.

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The planned relocation of Channel 4 is an example of what is needed to attract these families and individuals – a high performing cultural institution moving its creative functions outside of London (at the laudable behest of government). We need much, much more of this; along with the sort of investment capital that the rich merchants of the Industrial Revolution invested in the North. Might a regional capital gains tax relief help facilitate this?

The more that the North escapes its working-class monoculture by bringing back the people who left, the more the working classes will benefit, because a diverse social mix is exactly what will create opportunities for the young people currently and cruelly being left behind.

You can’t flyover where you live, and the mark of the North’s success will only really be found when the middle classes who left it some 100 years ago return.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins, ‘The Big Sort: Selective Migration and the Decline of Northern England, 1800-2017’, LSE, May 2017