A Manifesto for the North

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ResPublica’s Manifesto for the North, launched at last week’s Finding True North conference, provides a litany of policy ideas aimed at linking up the Northern economy and driving growth. Its claim that the Northern Powerhouse  ‘of all the post-war innovations and attempts at reversing abject decline … has come closest to what is needed’ may seem a little bold for what many still regard as little more than a vision statement, but new policy ideas are welcome. We’ve taken a look at the prospects for some of the more eye-catching suggestions.

Via media

Their central diagnosis is that the North has suffered from policies that have oscillated wildly from statism to laissez faire. In an attempt to navigate a middle way, ResPublica advocates a mix of ‘Whole North’ approaches and more muscular civic devolution and financial control. Their suggestion that a ‘Council of the North’ steer regional policy is ambitious, but has received a mixed reception: from then-DCLG boss Greg Clark suggesting an informal collegiate approach would work best, to Sir Richard Leese suggesting that he wasn’t necessarily opposed – but couldn’t figure out what such a body would actually do. The current anti-political mood in the country is hardly conducive to erecting new political superstructures, too.

Money talks

Financially, they’ve identified a number of areas where cities could retain locally collected funds – including National Insurance, savings in benefits, and Stamp Duty. There is even the suggestion that combined authorities be empowered to raise taxes to fund healthcare subject to a referendum (though it’s hard not to conclude they have fallen out of fashion). The right approach to local tax retention could empower local authorities, but would have to be carefully calibrated to ensure that funding and responsibility go hand in hand.

The road to somewhere?

There is strong support for the proposed ‘TransNorth’ high-speed route linking Liverpool to Newcastle, and a welcome recognition that it genuinely needs to bind the cities of the North together, rather than fizzling out as a fast route from Manchester to Leeds, or a solely east-west link that leaves the North East to languish. The proposal for an ‘Infrastructure for the North’ to sit alongside ‘Transport for the North’ seems to run the risk of tying up progress through the creation of competing fiefdoms. Perhaps we need an evolved, empowered Transport for the North, rather than multiple bodies in parallel?

Home is where the pan-regional regeneration partnership is

While the housing crisis is often portrayed as a London-centric problem (and yes, London is pricey), ResPublica rightly highlight that insufficient housing in the North is ‘accelerating … the brain drain to London and the South East’. At the report launch, we saw the evidence in the flesh: the panel consisted of a national television news host, a think tank chair, and a Secretary of State, all Northerners by birth, who felt they needed to move south to further their careers and life prospects.

They propose ‘pan-regional regeneration partnerships’ that can control land and funding, and protect planning permissions. Stamp Duty retention for housing investment would be a useful asset, as Manchester’s Housing Investment Fund is demonstrating. What many developers would no doubt like to see is an approach that can help them across sites, rather than focussing on mobilising public sector resources in specific, designated areas. Flexibility on national targets for affordable housing and starter homes, where appropriate, could be a move in the right direction.

An energetic impasse

Energy development is identified as ‘complicated by a tangle of national and local planning policy’. They’re certainly right about that, but no solution seems to be forthcoming. The previous Government was inconsistent in its approach – willing to gradually nationalise planning decisions in some areas, and encouraging local vetoes in others. It will be interesting to see whether Greg Clark’s new remit as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, perhaps informed by his previous DCLG role, leads him to try to streamline and accelerate energy policy.

A whole new world?

The Manifesto for the North was clearly long in the making. It feels like its authors were unlucky in that it emerged into a wholly new, post-Brexit reality, which has shaken many of the political and economic assumptions on which the world seemed based. In a sense, that makes this precisely the right time to be talking about what’s needed – but it also makes it a difficult time to demand ‘a New Deal for the North … equal in scale and ambition’ to 1930s America. Several trillion pounds might just be hard to come by (unless you’ve got a couple of hundred dollars to exchange).

Under George Osborne, austerity would have been the elephant in the room for such a wide-ranging and financially ambitious policy menu. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has already indicated that financial reality has altered, perhaps making the implementation of some more likely. We will watch closely to see if they filter into the programme of the May government.

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