Rebalancing the economy is bigger than party politics

23 February 2018

Caroline Flint MP, Co-Chair of the Northern Powerhouse APPG

The starting point for any debate on the Northern Powerhouse is: what is it? Is it an idea? Was it just George Osborne’s attempt to show the Tories cared about the North? Is it a chance to rebrand the North’s major cities? Is it about bringing the North’s leading politicians and industrialists together to help rebalance the United Kingdom’s economy?

The answers are yes, yes, possibly and yes. Those answers are not self-evident – so let me elaborate. The idea of a Northern Powerhouse is credited now, to Lord Jim O’Neill, who chaired the City Growth Commission, a body of work commissioned by the RSA. O’Neill saw value in joining the economies of Manchester and Liverpool to add value to the North’s overall economic effort.

In June 2014, Osborne counter-posed the fact that London dominates the UK economy with the need for a Northern Powerhouse. He cited transport, science and innovation, creative clusters, and devolution to local areas as key themes. Osborne later pledged that £7bn was being committed to this idea.

While, yes, this was a clear Tory pitch to the North (a general election was a year away), there was an idea here to build on. After all, under the Labour government the northern cities had seen a renaissance, economically and culturally. But even 13 years of Labour investment hadn’t finished the job. In particular, putting new heart into small towns and the rural North; improving connectivity from rail services to broadband; upgrading the skills of the workforce; there was much to do.

With the Conservative Party’s re-election in 2015 and, stutteringly, in 2017, the devolution game was in full swing. Most councils had been through hard times. Northern leaders had seen the London Olympics, Crossrail, Heathrow expansion looming, and plans for HS2 to start construction from the South. They were hungry for the North to share in this renewal.

There is an appetite for devolution; and the government has begun the process, starting with city mayors. Now the likes of Liverpool and Manchester have elected mayors and new funds to deploy. So while some northern cities have the possibility to rebrand and promote themselves, the rest of the North may soon be playing catch up.

I have family as far north as Teesside and Kendal, so I’m not one who believes that Manchester equals the North. Darlington, Newcastle, Workington, Carlisle, Blackpool, Northallerton, Scarborough, Hull and much beyond are also in need of attention. So much of the North barely gets a mention.

Yet the Northern Powerhouse will seek to influence the everyday lives of some 15m Northerners. In truth, our northern cities and the industrial heartlands that surround them have huge amounts in common. Whether coal, steel, chemicals or ports – they were the engine of Britain; but they all need new purpose in the 21st century. Many experience low skill levels, a brain drain and low historic private investment.

What does this demand of the North’s political leaders? First, they must see the common threads and make the big argument over the parochial. They must agree what investment is needed to improve skills, connect communities; and to attract innovative companies.

Secondly, political leaders – locally, regionally and nationally – have a duty to work together. We need to make common cause for the North, across party divides, and do so without delay. This is one of the roles of the Northern Powerhouse All Party Parliamentary Group. Most of the political players in the North are Labour voices. But, for the time being, the government isn’t; and the North needs to build a consensus for strategic investment in the North.

Recently, summing up at the Northern Powerhouse Education and Skills Conference, Jim O’Neill, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, argued the North had to stop acting like a victim, and make a positive case. One example of a positive case is the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle and Gateshead opening in June; a showcase for 3m visitors to experience not just the North’s great history, but tomorrow’s innovation and design. It is a celebration of the past and the future. I used to worry that the first regeneration step every great industry and town took was to create a museum. The industry may have died; but the waxworks remained. The North cannot look back. It must move forward.

The Northern Powerhouse APPG is a cross-party group, but several key priorities have emerged:

  • Attainment
    The Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s recent report on raising education and skills made the case for £130m more to ensure children in the North achieve their potential.
  • Connectivity
    In the last ten years the two big UK infrastructure investments have been HS2 and Crossrail. We believe HS3 – a high-speed Liverpool to Hull service should be built in parallel with HS2. Presently, that journey takes, without delays, around three hours. We believe the journey should be halved. Likewise, there is a positive economic benefit to be gained from a 60-minute Newcastle to Leeds service; and for the route to Carlisle to see investment too.
  • Technology
    We need investment in tomorrow’s technologies. The pace of broadband rollout, vital for small and growing businesses, has been painfully slow, never reaching some outlying communities. For most, fibre to home super-fast broadband is years away. Advanced manufacturing will give new impetus to our lean, efficient steel and manufacturing industries. And moving forward with carbon capture is vital not just for UK emissions, but for major industrial sites like Teesside, where CCS plans could be delivered by the mid-2020s.

The North has a huge future, but we need to earn it, working together beyond party divides. Failure to do so will mean that the North will remain the South’s poor neighbour.

This article was originally published in the New Statesman website on 23rd February 2018.