Leading the Northern Powerhouse
This week Manchester Airport Group, in partnership with MEN Business, hosted a breakfast event on the Northern Powerhouse which explored how the policy idea was viewed in a global context and to assess what obstacles could arise in the future of the programme. The panel consisted of some big names from the world of policy and business: Adam White from MAG Property; Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North; Rhys Whalley from Manchester China Forum; Guy Parker, Senior Policy Advisor at CBi North West; and Leo Goodwin, Managing Director of TransPennine Express.
Many points of discussion were raised throughout the event; however it was perhaps Ed Cox who made the most salient observation when he suggested that the Northern Powerhouse was in danger of turning into a ‘talking shop’ with hardly any tangible results being produced. In order to fix this he suggested creating a steering group consisting of political leaders and business stakeholders who would direct, and oversee, the progress of the Northern Powerhouse programme.
It was June 2014 when the Chancellor made his first speech on the potential for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ by saying “The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts… We need to bring the cities of the north together as a team – that’s how Britain will beat the rest.” But, as Ed Cox has pointed out, this has not happened quickly enough.
The host of devolution packages that have been handed down to various city regions across the North, such as Liverpool and Manchester, have rightly been viewed as progress but, at the same time, they have potentially created a new parochialism, where regional politicians concentrate on their immediate geographical boundaries and not the bigger “northern” picture.
For example, in February 2016 it was reported that Liverpool City Council had offered to pay £2bn towards extending the HS2 tracks to Liverpool, rather than having them end in Manchester or Leeds. The proposal has been warmly greeted by some, but also uncovers some of the rivalries between city regions at the same time, particularly as Manchester has not been asked to fund any of the HS2 tracks. Liverpool’s Mayor Joe Anderson couldn’t help but note this perceived ill treatment from the Government compared to that extended to Manchester by saying, “…we are going to be disadvantaged.”
Uniting the Northern Powerhouse
There are of course various organisations that already bring council leaders together in order to produce collaboration between local authorities. The Core Cities is a group of local authorities that have formed an alliance in order to create a “united local authority voice to promote the role of cities in driving economic growth and the case for city devolution.” Consisting of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle (as well as Nottingham, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol, and Nottingham) the group is represented by key players in the Northern Powerhouse and could be an avenue through which to expand collaborative working between city authorities.
The success of Core Cities, however, is debatable. Often politically slanted towards the Labour Party, the group has often found itself at loggerheads with the Conservative Government and is seen by many as a pressure group used to attack government policy rather than instigating positive initiatives itself.
That said, the idea of a united group of mayors and council leaders in the North is perhaps a sensible option to consider in order to begin driving the Northern Powerhouse agenda forward. As Ed Cox has suggested, the idea of rebalancing the UK economy by generating investment in the North is much-needed and innovative plan, but without real direction and action the Northern Powerhouse is in danger of becoming simply that – an idea without any substance or results. What is needed is accountability and maybe a Northern Cabinet is one way to achieve that.