For two decades IPPR North has been at the centre of the debate about how to rebalance England's regions. Here we take stock of how far we have come and the role we have played in shaping the "levelling up" debate.

Tony Blair was on the verge of a third term as Prime Minister when he helped launch IPPR North 20 years ago. In 2004, the economy was moving along at a modest, but not unwelcome 2.4 per cent. The kind of growth the government would be proud of today.

The main concern in January 2004, as IPPR North opened its doors for the first time in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, was how to get to full employment in the North East. This was the focus of our first piece of published research.

Reading through some of our previous reports, archived here, is like interpreting the runes of an unknown country. We were the early adopters and drivers of what was later to be called levelling up, and something in the country was already stirring.

Phrases like “the left behind” and “take back control” were a few years away. Yet IPPR North was already taking stock of the recent devolutions of power to Scotland and Wales and thinking through the “English Question”.

IPPR North’s mission was and remains, to reduce place-based inequality and enable people in England’s regions to be able to live a good life and to thrive.

Clouds on the horizon

The “Credit Crunch” squeezed the life out of the northern economy. But it wasn’t long before a calamity germinated in the banking sector was reframed into a full-blown crisis of state and fiscal legitimacy.

On 14 September 2007 the country woke to scenes of people queuing to withdraw their savings from a little-known bank with roots in the North East of England.

The collapse of Northern Rock is like a bookend. It marks the sudden end of an epoch some like to call “the great moderation”. It would present a challenge to those predominant political and economic certainties which, like the banking system itself, were at risk of crashing down.

The “Credit Crunch” squeezed the life out of the northern economy. But it wasn’t long before a calamity germinated in the banking sector was reframed into a full-blown crisis of state and fiscal legitimacy.

Devolution gathers pace despite austerity

In 2010, after 13 years in power, Labour was replaced by a Conservative-led coalition that immediately prescribed austerity for the UK and ushered in steep declines in public spending, particularly for local government.

At the same time, the new coalition promised to deliver extensive devolution of power, following Labour’s lead in devolving power to London and Greater Manchester. At the same time, the government abolished Regional Development Agencies and introduced Local Enterprise Partnerships (which are currently being dismantled).

Responding to the cuts tabled by George Osborne in his 2010 spending review, former IPPR North director, Ed Cox, said: “The severity and speed of the cuts threatens the recovery in Northern England which was hardest hit by the recession and is still struggling to recover.”

In 2011 we took stock of the “good times” before the great financial crisis. Our report Richer Yet Poorer: Economic inequality and polarisation in the North of England, found that despite a growing economy, inequality between the regions had risen in the run up to the Great Financial Crisis.

The right calls

Over the years we have called more than a few things right. In 2013 the BBC lauded our “ingenious suggestion” to lock-in support for HS2 by reversing the construction phases of the project. Instead of starting in London, we argued, the project should start by laying track in the North, connecting with the rest of the country later on. We didn’t expect to be making the same case today.

In 2016 we published analysis showing the £86bn gap in spending on transport that had opened between London and the North, a statistic that has been updated and repeated over and over and a debate which we continue to champion today, alongside a mighty set of northern campaigners.

We can also point to big wins. Our impact includes the design and quickening pace of English devolution and the roll out of mayoral combined authority model across England the. We have helped to position the North as a net zero powerhouse. We have been part of the design and roll out of pan northern institutions that continue to thrive today. We repeatedly take a stand for local government, the very underpinnings of regional devolution.

In 2013 the BBC lauded our “ingenious suggestion” to start HS2 by laying track in the North before connecting with the rest of the country. We didn’t expect to be making the same case a decade later.

Post Brexit: “the North” is suddenly top of the political agenda

Our annual audit of the State of the North in 2016 pointed to the strengths in the region, whilst highlighting a few “dark clouds” on the horizon.

The result of the referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union shocked Westminster to its core and reignited a debate about the detachment felt by communities across the country. A sense of a far-flung political elite, be it in Brussels or Westminster.

From the “burning injustices” of Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister to Boris Johnson’s enthusiastic championing of levelling up, the regional agenda gained sudden impetus and moved quickly up the list of national political priorities.

It wouldn’t have happened without the work of our team and colleagues across the North and Brexit served as a cue to double down on our deliberative work with local communities that culminated in last year’s Parallel Lives research. This work attempted to shine a light on the gaps in health, wealth, power and opportunity that drive the divides between regions and places. As well as the critical state of local government finances which continue to risk undermining the whole levelling up project.

In recent times we have championed the progress made on devolution and when necessary, criticised the pace and scale of action taken to date to address the root causes of place-based inequality. New divides are emerging, too. Our most recent State of the North report highlights how growing wealth inequality between regions is rising and is a growing concern for the public.

Looking ahead

In the last 20 years, amidst the turmoil of economic and political changes, we have achieved so much. But there remains so much more to do and IPPR North is as needed today – if not more – than it was back in 2004.

We live in a world of multiple crises, from climate collapse to inequality and political instability. We are proud of the trailblazing role IPPR North continues to play in championing the devolution of political power. But change must be embedded and resourced. The cash crisis currently affecting many northern local authorities shows only too well Westminster’s tendency give power with one hand while snatching away resources with the other. Putting an end to this kind of conflict between centre and the regions is core to what IPPR North stands for and is vital to political stability.

The North is becoming increasingly marginal as an electorate. Pressure on both sides of the political spectrum will no doubt force bolder offers on the regional agenda in the months to come.

Here’s to another 20 years

The Labour Party’s Deputy Leader, the Rt Hon Angela Rayner MP, joined us at our birthday celebration on 20th March. Back in 2004 Angela was working as a local authority carer and union representative. Within the next six months, she could become the UK’s next Deputy Prime Minister, or the “Deputy Prime Minister for the North” as she has promised.
Here's to the next 20 years of IPPR North trailblazing solutions to tackle our regional imbalances of wealth, health, power and opportunity. If you haven’t already, we’d love for you to join us.