This paper offers evidence and thinking on the first of the Northern Economic Futures Commission's eight core questions: What can be learned from the past about the northern economy and the ability of policymaking to shape it? It focuses on the past 20 years, covering the era of regional development agencies (RDAs) and a period of great economic and industrial change in the North of England.

The prevailing narrative about the economic performance of the North contrasts the dominance of the prosperous and powerful Greater South East with the lagging regions of the North West, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber.

Despite a determined programme of work and investment in the North made by RDAs and their partners, a gradual evolution of the institutional framework towards more decentralised arrangements, and a benign economic environment, the headline figures remained stubbornly fixed. Between 2000 and 2008, while the annual rate of growth in GVA in the northern regions was a healthy 4.6 per cent, it was still below the England and UK averages of 5.2 per cent.

The assessment of this performance is contested. For some, the story of the last decade was one of failure: the gap in performance barely shifted and longstanding challenges persist. For others, however, the story of the last decade is one of unfinished business. As other parts of the North struggled through the recession, key economic centres have shown considerable resilience and are significantly better positioned for recovery than they were after previous downturns.