Now is the time to get behind a New NorthPublished Wed 17 May 2017
For those who follow football, the relegation of Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Hull from the Premier League last weekend and the supremacy of two London clubs at the top of the table, sits comfortably with the national narrative which tells us Northern glories lie in the past and that the future is symbolised by the capital city. Sadly, this is a narrative that extends well beyond the world of sport and there is plenty of economic data that lends credence to the so-called North-South divide.
It is nothing new for Northern identities to be shaped by the national media with their highs and lows determined by caricature and comedy, often egged-on with local stories of gritty survival and self-deprecation. Ideas of the North as ‘other-than-the south’ and ultimately inferior in the eyes of London’s ruling elite date back as far as the twelfth century. Despite various up-swings in national popularity throughout the twentieth century, often linked to literature, music and sport, Northerners seem firmly planted in the national psyche as the subjects of amusement, affection and sympathy and the Northern economy portrayed as struggling and always in need of support.
These are colonial mindsets that need consigning to history. While it may be unsurprising that an arch-protagonist of the needy North narrative, Kelvin Mackenzie, has been dumped by The Sun for his ill-informed attitudes to a Northern footballer, more subtle and sinister characterisations of Northern dependency and despair are played out in the national media every day and seem to pervade the attitudes of the vast majority of Whitehall civil servants so often responsible for developing policies for places they have never visited let alone lived in.
But to point the finger at the Westminster bubble and apportion blame to a myopic media would only be to reinforce the stereotype. If the North of England is to enjoy a twenty-first century renaissance, then we must seize the narrative of a New North ourselves and set out our own vision of the kind of economy and society we ourselves can create.
The election of three new city-regional mayors in the North – in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and Tees Valley – represents a significant opportunity for significant parts of northern England to enjoy a more visible and vocal style of leadership. Their actual powers are woefully limited in comparison to their international peers and there are many who continue to sneer at their democratic mandate but, as has been the case with the Mayor of London, this new cohort of Northern leaders will galvanise local business interests and help shape public attitudes. Crucially, if they rally together, they could also be instrumental in redefining the Northern economy not as a new London in the North but as part of a network of European cities where there is more inclusive growth and a much higher quality of life.
The economic foundations for this New North are already in place. Last year’s Northern Independent Economic Review identified four ‘prime capabilities’ where the North of England demonstrates world-leading advantages. Economic clusters around advanced manufacturing, health innovation, computational and other digital specialisms, and crucially energy all represent huge opportunities for future jobs and high productivity growth. There is no reason, for example, that the North of England could not regain its place as the energy ‘powerhouse’ of the nation with its wide array of renewable energy sources, its innovative approaches to distributed, municipal power and heat systems, and its unique geological advantages for energy storage and carbon capture.
But these sectoral capabilities will not flourish without greater recognition of our human capabilities. Once again, the national narrative about a failing education system, a graduate brain-drain, and a population of shirkers rather than strivers needs to be roundly dismissed. Gross generalisations and easy caricature case studies about school performance overlook the outstanding achievements of many schools irrespective of the socio-economic background of thechildren they educate. Snapshots of a graduate brain-drain must be balanced with the ever-growing numbers of ‘boomerangers’ who are returning north with capital and skills and enjoying the higher quality of life afforded away from an overheating London. And far from being a fiscal black-hole, with exciting experiments in health and social care in Greater Manchester, big government data in Yorkshire and ageing in the North East, a New North can be at the forefront of public service reform and driving up productivity in those sectors that are traditionally considered low wage and low productivity.
None of this should be unduly naïve. The success of our economic and human capabilities will depend upon a level of investment that has not been seen for several decades. Our Victorian-era transport infrastructure needs an urgent upgrade and the gross inequalities in regional transport spending must be reversed by the incoming government. Any powers and finances repatriated from Brussels should not lead to further centralisation but be devolved to cities and regions, not least vital R&D spending and funds to transform our rural economies. And government must devolve far greater fiscal powers to enable councils, combined authorities and other statutory bodies like Transport for the North to raise the funding and finance to drive investment themselves.
Even here though, there is no need to wait upon central government. Our first proper Northern Transport Strategy, due to be published in a matter of weeks, could be the first of a number of pan-Northern strategies for economic growth which give shape and coherence to a New North vision. IPPR North will publish a blueprint for a Northern Energy Strategy, for example, later in the Autumn. These assets and others can be pulled together into a non-statutory ‘Great North Plan’ to act as the kind of spatial framework which is common in most European regions to attract private and foreign investment and act as a guide for more local and sectoral bodies. Central government should be seen as an important but not essential partner in driving forward our collective vision.
But what will hold us back in relation to many of these opportunities is the absence of any proper institution for pan-Northern collaboration. There will always be those sceptics who question notions of a unified Northern voice. As with every other region on the planet, there will always be significant local diversity and entrenched parochialism. There are valid debates to be had about the optimal size for a sub-national region but it is difficult to counter the argument that in a global economy the North’s city-regions are too small and yet an all-England approach to industrial strategy is too broad to facilitate proper economic development.
To this end, the first step in articulating and then driving forward a New North should be the formation of a Council of the North. This can be done without creating a single new politician or holding any further elections as the Transport for the North partnership board has already established an agreed basis by which 19 constituent authorities can meet and take decisions together as a statutory body. Of course, any more far-sighted vision for a New North may want to go further in bringing regional and local democratic institutions into the twenty-first century too, but for now it would be a good start for a Council of the North to ensure our region had a clear voice in Brexit negotiations.
Irrespective of the outcome of the general election, the months and years ahead contain some massive challenges but also some huge opportunities too. It is in such circumstances over the centuries that Northerners have demonstrated their incomparable innovation and creativity, their entrepreneurial wit and energy, and their inspirational leadership and vision. Now is the time to take back control of what it means to be Northern. Now is the time to get behind a New North.
Ed Cox is the Director of IPPR North, the North's progressive think-tank. He tweets at @edcox_ippr.
This essay is the first in a new series of essays and speeches on the "New North". Over the coming months, through speeches, audio and a new book, we'll host leading northern politicians, entrepreneurs, activists and cultural figures to present their idea and vision for a "new North".
We're looking for partners to take forward this exciting programme. Sponsors will benefit from thought-leadership and branding opportunities in front of key political and business influencers.
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