The Northern Powerhouse: 8 years on


Last Thursday marked eight years since George Osborne outlined his vision for a Northern Powerhouse in a speech at the Museum for Science and Industry’s Power Hall in Manchester. His plan was for “not one city, but a collection of northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world.”

The Northern Powerhouse had its roots as an economic project; its political life started slightly later. In 2014, the Cities Growth Commission, led by renowned economist (and now our vice-chair) Lord Jim O’Neill, called for better infrastructure alongside more powers and funding for metro areas to unleash their full economic potential.  Cities are “the most powerful engines of growth almost everywhere”, he said, but they needed “more decision-making power to put their best ideas into effect.”

The idea caught the eye of Osborne, who had spotted both the problems and potential of northern regions and saw an opportunity to grow Treasury coffers and redress the long-standing divide between north and south. Inviting O’Neill to serve as Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, they worked together on a radical plan to fundamentally rebalance the UK economy, turbocharge our sluggish productivity and transform millions of lives for the better. 

This was about jobs – better paid, skilled jobs for northern workers. Thousands of highly productive jobs could be created by building an interconnected web of towns and cities across the north, in turn generating higher tax revenues and fuelling northern ambition.

A plan to transform northern productivity

Step one was to improve the transport infrastructure between northern towns and cities, which would connect people to opportunities and businesses to workers. A new high-speed rail line across the Pennines would link the great northern cities and create a labour market of millions, that would draw investment in from around the world.

Next, the government would invest billions in the north’s science and innovation assets, such as the Graphene Institute in Manchester and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham. This would allow our world-leading universities and translational institutions to act as a counterweight to the R&D ‘Golden Triangle’ in the southeast.

The National Graphene Institute in Manchester

Thirdly, it was necessary to address the long-standing divides in education attainment and skills levels between north and south. This would be vital to ensuring that people were able to access the new, skilled jobs being created in their areas – and to enticing businesses to invest here in the first place.

Finally, in an effort to turn the tide on decades of creeping Whitehall centralisation, Osborne would devolve power to the regions with the creation of a new tier of local leader: metro mayors, the first of whom would be elected in 2017. As champions for their region, they would be able to tie together the disparate strands of local policy critical for economic success such as education, skills and transport.

Devolution deals in the North were signed with Greater Manchester, the Tees Valley, Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire and later North of Tyne and West Yorkshire. The arrival of the metro mayors has fundamentally changed the landscape of British politics and, we hope, signals a shift away from decades of Whitehall dominance.

Building the partnership

When George Osborne left office in 2016, business and civic leaders were determined not to let the project leave with him. The Northern Powerhouse Partnership was established that same year with founding members including Manchester Airport Group, Drax, HSBC, Arup and Siemens.

Business-led, we work collaboratively across the public and private sector to make the case for wider, deeper devolution and greater investment across the north. Instead of a central government policy, our mission is now shared by businesses, mayors, local politicians and universities, who remain committed to transforming the northern economy.

As George Osborne himself said this week: “Rather than being imposed by a single politician, [the Northern Powerhouse] is now rooted in the communities of the north, who know that working together they can achieve much more than working apart.”

NPP’s cross-party structure helps to protect us from changing political winds and ensure our focus remains on the long-term. On our board Conservatives such as Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and former transport minister Lord McLoughlin serve alongside Labour’s Mayor of Liverpool Joanne Anderson and Bradford Council Leader Susan Hinchcliffe.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, writes about what’s been achieved since George Osborne’s original speech.

In June 2017, I walked into the former Chancellor’s office to be interviewed for the post of director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a new privately led consortium of northern business and civic leaders who remained committed to the northern agenda.

I had always been a supporter, an enthusiastic one at that, but had never met either George or Jim O’Neill before that day. It was the eve of the General Election when May would manage to almost lose to Corbyn, and the former Chancellor was leaving politics. It was a job interview which set me on a course to stand up for a project and idea with far more significance than anything I’d worked on before: to close the North – South divide for good.

Many of the civic leaders involved in the project had been mentors to me during my early days in politics. I had known Leader of Leeds Council (now Baroness) Judith Blake since joining the Labour Party and as a councillor in Newcastle I’d worked closely with then Council Leader Nick Forbes. Both had been on the trade mission to China with northern city leaders in 2015 to bang the drum for the newly minted Northern Powerhouse international brand.

None of us were going to let this drop, even in the face of Theresa May’s evident lack of enthusiasm for the project. My experiences with Conservative Ministers were constructive. Treasury Minister Andrew Jones MP and the new Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry MP (now Chair of the Northern Research Group) both fought hard to keep the devolution agenda moving.

However, like much of my twenties, I seemed to arrive after much of the party had fizzled out. The devolution deals to Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley and South Yorkshire had all been signed. Transport for the North had already been established, with a mandate to write a comprehensive transport strategy and plan a new line across the Pennines.

Yet, despite Whitehall waxing and waning over the Northern Powerhouse, there was a definite buzz around the first metro mayors when they were elected – and that’s only getting stronger. Labour’s Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin and Steve Rotheram – the M62 mayors – have now been joined by Oliver Coppard in South Yorkshire. In the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen is making huge strides with his own brand of Conservatism. Their success has been the single greatest achievement of the original Northern Powerhouse vision and, with them, the North has found its voice.

So, what now?

We have got to get back to bold new ideas and ambitious, long-term thinking, as George Osborne himself observed. Levelling up could have promise, and it certainly has strong commitment from Michael Gove and others at DLUHC. However, a weakened Prime Minister is failing to keep the agenda on track. The new high-speed rail line across the Pennines – promised by both Osborne and Johnson – will no longer reach Leeds. The Eastern leg of HS2 has been cancelled. Opportunity Areas, one of the most effective educational policies of recent years, no longer have local control – the ingredient which proved so crucial to their success. Other than Michael Gove, the cabinet seem reluctant to devolve any real power to local areas.

It’s a dangerous time to be breaking promises. Starting in Wakefield yesterday, Labour is putting bricks back in the red wall one by one. Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have recently both committed to devolution in a major way, with a report from Gordon Brown due later this year.

The battleground for the next election is set. History teaches us; ignore the north at your peril. Millions of northern votes are up for grabs – but only the bold will be able to match the boundless ambition of northern business and civic leaders, who have fought for eight years to keep the vision of Northern Powerhouse alive.

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