The Northern Powerhouse: Where are we now?
When George Osbourne first coined the term Northern Powerhouse in 2014, he purposefully drew on terminology and imagery from the Industrial Revolution, which was powered by the North of England and transformed large parts of the world from slow agrarian societies to fast-paced technology driven urban centres where constant progress was the only aim.
However, instead of coal, steam, spinning machines, and white hot steel, Osbourne referred to gleaming high speed transport, lightning quick digital communications, and collaborative working between disconnected cities and communities which more often than not saw themselves as rivals not partners.
A Quick Snapshot
If you take a glance at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership Website here you’ll see that its simple objective remains “to increase the impact and contribution of the North of England to the UK economy”.
However if we look at the North now, in particular Yorkshire, we still see a disparate picture of development.
Tellingly, the think tank IPPR North reported that nearly half of the entire country’s research and development funding still goes to the areas around London, Cambridge, and Oxford, and perhaps most relevantly, the IPPR’s figures state that since 2014 transport spending has increased by more than twice as much per person In London as it has in the North (while the number of late trains on northern routes has more than doubled).
In addition, if you happen to be stuck on a packed train in the Pennines between Leeds and Manchester it’s highly likely that when you look out of the window you will see a slow agrarian society….
What about HS2?
From the start of the Northern Powerhouse project “Northerners” were promised a new high speed rail line linking London to Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds called HS2.
This in itself was controversial at the time, with questions raised over the projected cost and effect it would have on communities where housing would be demolished to make way for HS2. In addition, people in South and East Yorkshire complained their cities could be left behind as even more emphasis was placed on developing Leeds.
However, HS2 now seems in doubt with Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, questioning whether it’s worth the money.
It’s also rumoured that the anticipated Government commissioned Oakervee Review in to HS2 will recommend that the Birmingham to Leeds Section of HS2 be scrapped and in a recent trip to Leeds Cabinet Minister Liz Truss refused to back HS2, instead pointing to Boris Johnson’s commitment to a £9b high speed rail link between Leeds and Manchester and full fibre broadband.
However, the majority of northern business and city leaders still back HS2.
In fact, The Northern Powerhouse Independent Review (NPIR), which was established to pre-empt the Government’s review of HS2, stated that more spending on infrastructure not less is the answer. In anticipation of the Oakervee review the NPIR said: “the briefings of recent weeks, putting in doubt the eastern leg of HS2 are the height of irresponsibility…those responsible have done the reputation of the government, specifically its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse, significant damage.” They also claim that HS2 should be implemented alongside further high speed East to West transport links.
While many may feel that Mr Johnson’s preference for East to West rail upgrades makes sense, the problem is that the region has been promised so much before, and it looks like plans will again return to the drawing board (probably only for said plans to be scrunched up and tossed in the bin further down the line).
While cities such as Manchester and Leeds continue to do well (with Channel 4’s move to Leeds city centre providing a huge boost) it seems unlikely that we will be able to harness the true power of the region while decisions about funding are made in London.
Devolution of powers to the North is still a patchwork and while Manchester and to an extent Liverpool are now city-regions in their own right (free of their old county loyalties) Leeds is still very much attached to its Yorkshire identity. In addition, outside of cities like Leeds, it’s very difficult to see how towns like Dewsbury will benefit from a vague idea of the Northern Powerhouse without decisions over funding being made closer to home.
Overall, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the Industrial Revolution was not borne out of terminology like “collaborative working” or “vision” or any sense of broader northern identity.
Instead it was built on the hard work and the ambition of individual business owners looking to do well for themselves and ultimately help boost the civic pride of their home towns and cities.