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Let’s turn off the Northern Powerhouse The North needs to stop trying to be just another London — and play to its innate strengths

Easedale Tarn lake in the Lake District, Cumbria. Photo : Tim Graham/Getty Images.

Easedale Tarn lake in the Lake District, Cumbria. Photo : Tim Graham/Getty Images.

November 13, 2019   6 mins

In the Disney version of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Mowgli is captured by a bunch of anarchic monkeys who demand the boy give them fire. King Louie, the leader of these mischievous bandar-logs, believes that once they have fire, they will be like men — hence the lyrics: “I wanna walk like you, talk like you too-oo-oo…”

I sometimes think that the North, where I live, is a bit like the bandar-log: we are certain that if only London would give us the things that make London successful, then we’d be successful too. You know: a fast train, a tram system, a big concert hall, relocate a government department or a TV channel.

Perhaps it’s time we changed our tune, though; perhaps the North needs to stop trying to be something it’s not. Giving the bandar-log fire meant they would be monkeys with fire — it wouldn’t automatically make them humans. Likewise, lavishing the North with the trappings of our capital, which is pretty much the greatest city in the world, won’t turn it into London.

In any case, deep down, the North doesn’t really want to be London. It just wants to be a happier, healthier, wealthier version of itself. So I’d suggest its leaders stopped banging on about the capital sending up some fire and, instead, started asking what is different and special about the North of England.

Part of the trouble is that the North is stuck in the Heseltine Model of regional development. It’s a model focused on the city, not small towns, suburbs or rural places. And it’s an approach which relies on the property developer, on shiny regeneration with offices, city squares and urban living. This is a big city solution in a region with a population density below 1,000 per square mile compared with London’s population density of 15,000 per square mile.

Leaders up here are kidding themselves that central government cash, plus developer chutzpah and strong local leadership, will birth an economic powerhouse — despite 40 years and counting of it not working. We even use the phrase, The Northern Powerhouse, as if our repeating it again and again will make it come true.

The American urbanist, Aaron Renn, understands the idea of a city’s identity and individuality. He speaks compellingly about how a place must embrace its uniqueness, drawing on Oriana Schwindt’s research about how cities in the Mid-West were all trying to be like somewhere else — New York, Boston, San Francisco or LA – and so were losing any sense of their own identity. Renn’s characterisation immediately sounds familiar:

“The imagery is so similar, pictures of the hip creative class, some start-ups, something about the local fashion and food scene, some people on bicycles going through the center of the city. I love all of these things and I would argue that you have to have them in order to make a city competitive in today’s marketplace. But they are not things that set a city apart.”

The same goes for the North, where our focus on the “powerhouse” myth means regeneration and regional development are about increasing productivity rather than improving lifestyle. This isn’t to dismiss the importance economic growth, but to observe that the strategy for economic development — regenerate, invest for growth — hasn’t changed for decades, yet the blame for its failure is put down to not enough cash from London. Nobody questions whether the strategy might be part of the problem.

This is all compounded by a continuing emphasis on how the North is hard done by, with a focus on the worst parts of the North — its failures not its successes. On Question Time the other week, film-maker Ken Loach described, without being challenged, the North East of England as “desolate”. A region containing Durham Cathedral, the Newcastle riverside, Northumberland’s coast and the Upper Tees Valley. Desolate?

Most of the North is not urban, is not in a state of seemingly terminal decline and is not remotely desolate except in a “Cathy running across the moor shouting Heathcliffe” way. Speak to a Northerner about the North, and they will talk about moors and mountains, lakes and rivers, market towns and stately homes, woods and rolling acres.

Yet our blinkered economic development approach completely ignores this in favour of linking together five or six city centres with speedy trains and filling those centres with shiny offices.

It’s time to turn all this on its head. Leave behind those dreams of past industrial might and talk, instead, about what makes the North special. Let’s talk about what makes it unique: its environment. And in doing this, we can build on the back of good things that have happened already to make that environment even better. The South Yorkshire Forest has planted trees on former mine workings and slag heaps; Pennine Prospects are developing the idea of a regional park in the South Pennines, and the Environment Agency is using flood control funding to plant new woods and natural water traps in the upper Aire and Calder catchments.

So instead of looking South, or to past glories, let’s take a leaf out of the Ruhr’s book and concentrate on making the North cleaner, greener and open. Evidence tells us that how people feel about where they live makes a big difference to local economic success. In the Ruhr the starting point was cleaning the rivers and greening an environment damaged by a century of coal mining and steel making. It meant that the inhabitants realised that leisure — what people do when they’re not working — is of equal importance to new industry and the grand infrastructure of commerce.

Instead of trying to build gritty urban living in the centres of Bradford, Oldham and Sunderland, let’s turn these places’ unused, derelict industrial sites into country parks — let’s rewild the towns and cities of the industrial North. Let’s learn from the late, great Will Alsop, whose Bradford Masterplan invoked the city to bulldoze the mostly empty, 1970s city centre buildings, and replace them with a park. Note, too, his M62 corridor “super city” showed connection isn’t just about road and rail but about topography and history too.

In greening the inner city, we also improve air quality, get less car-dominated places and begin to transform the relationship old industrial communities have with where they live. We reconnect them with the original environment of the North, with the hills and valleys, the rivers and the woods.

So let’s have a South Pennines National Park between Barnsley and Bolton, Burnley and Keighley — a beautiful place where, more than anywhere, the industrial revolution was born. Let’s make England’s spine — the Pennines —a place of leisure and pleasure running from Derbyshire to the Scottish border. Let’s focus on the North as a fantastic place to live, a great place to set up a business, and a brilliant place to visit. All, with or without fast railways, just a few hours from the world’s greatest city.

The best thing about this is that the North doesn’t need permission from London to do all this. And probably needs a lot less money to do it than it will cost to build a fast railway from Leeds to Manchester.

And instead of moaning about how everything goes to London, the North should also remember that we all benefit from London being the world’s greatest city – the wealth, power and influence of that place makes Britain so much richer than we’d be without it. We don’t make the North successful by making London less successful.

None of this means we should ignore the persistent poverty in some places, the underperforming schools and the brain drain the North suffers from — but, by focusing on the environment and on the idea of leisure and pleasure, we change the way people feel about where they live. And by doing so, we can reduce that temptation to head off to greener pastures. There is clear evidence to show that the biggest problem with poorer communities — wherever they are — is that anyone with get up and go, gets up and goes. The evaluation of the New Deal for Communities Programme observes how this entrenches disadvantage as the best and brightest leave to be replaced by new residents, always poor and often new immigrants.

If there is central government funding to be had, perhaps it should be used to make sure the per pupil funding in schools is equal to that received by pupils in London.

The North-South divide is real — culturally, economically and socially. There are stark imbalances in funding and Whitehall has a slightly colonial attitude towards far away places. That’s why the North has to turn off the Powerhouse nonsense and look, instead, to its own assets.

When Arup prepared a masterplan for Airedale (the towns of Shipley, Bingley and Keighley and surrounding communities), one of its conclusions was that these places had their backs turned to their greatest treasures — the amazing South Pennines countryside, the river and the canal.

If we want to make a real change, we Northerners have to turn our backs on the few city centres and look up at what we all really know is the North’s uniqueness — something millions saw when the Tour de France visited Yorkshire — those hills, rivers, moors, market towns, lakes, country towns and parks. That’s where our future success lies.

Simon Cooke is an urbanist and professional marketer and former Conservative councillor. He lives in the foothills of the Pennines.


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