June 23rd marks eight years since the Northern Powerhouse agenda was launched. On the same date this year voters will go to the polls in a by-election in Wakefield. This blog reflects on the lessons we can learn from developments between 2014 and today and the current perceptions on the politics of regional inequality in England.

The Northern Powerhouse

Back in 2014, the then Chancellor George Osborne stood in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry and delivered a speech introducing the Conservative’s Northern Powerhouse agenda.

Osborne stated that “the cities of the North are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough”. He identified four key policy areas for action. The first was transport, and the need to provide modern intercity transport connections across the North. The second and third were backing northern science and universities, as well as northern creative clusters. The fourth key area outlined by Osborne concerned local power and the need for devolution.

The Northern Powerhouse was a welcome recognition of the extent of regional inequality in England and it provided a recognisable lens to consider it through. It was also an aknowledgement of the strengths and potential that the North has to offer. But how successful has the Northern Powerhouse been on these four priority agendas over the past eight years?

First, when it comes to transport, the Northern Powerhouse agenda helped bring about the creation of important pan-northern bodies like Transport for the North, following a recommendation by IPPR North. However, this was not matched by investment. Between 2009/10-2019/20, the North received just £349 per person in transport spending while the UK overall received £430 per person, and London received £864 per person.

Additionally, Transport for the North’s budget has been cut significantly. And the recent scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail and the eastern leg of HS2 in an unpopular Integrated Rail Plan is a major blow for the North. The government made promises to the region and broke them.

When it comes to investment in areas such as science in the North, it remains that the majority of R&D spending continues to be centred on the South East. In the life sciences for example, the north of England receives £4 billion less investment per year in health R&D than the South. The Levelling Up White Paper makes promises on increasing spending in this area but interestingly not on the balance of public spending. Meanwhile, the capital continues to receive the lion's share of funding when it comes to culture, and significant disparities can be found within and between regions. Recent promises to “redistribute” Arts Council funding are welcome, and as always – the proof will be in the pudding.

In terms of devolution, the Northern Powerhouse agenda brought benefits including the roll out of devolution to large parts of the North. Three in every five people in the North - 9.7 million people - are now represented by a metro mayor. This includes the people of Wakefield who will go to the polls this week and which sits within the West Yorkshire Combined Authority area.

However, many of the benefits and funding that came to the region through the Northern Powerhouse were undermined by the austerity agenda that was pursued simultaneously. Between 2009 and 2018 the North experienced a £3.6 billion cut in public spending, while the South East and the South West together saw a £4.7 billion rise (in real terms).

Wakefield was one of the worst affected areas in the country in terms of funding cuts, seeing an over 30 per cent decrease in its total expenditure between 2009 and 2018.

The shift to levelling up

Government focus on the Northern Powerhouse has ebbed and flowed over the past eight years. In recent years it is fair to say that the agenda has been replaced with the rhetoric of ‘levelling up’.

In no small part, this is down to perceptions of regional inequality post-Brexit. Two years to the day after Osborne launched the Northern Powerhouse, the UK voted to leave the European Union. In part, high support for ‘leave’ in places like Wakefield may have been a reflection of a perceived sense of decline, and a belief that such places had for too long been overlooked, and been held back from realising their potential by remote political decision-makers, be they in Brussels or Westminster.

Following the referendum, Osborne and Cameron stepped down and Theresa May became Conservative Leader and Prime Minister. Under May, there was a sense that central government’s focus on the Northern Powerhouse waned as she looked to develop a strategy to speak to the ‘burning injustices’ and the ‘just about managing’ across the country, reflecting the sense of disenchantment that had been highlighted in the Brexit vote.

This shift continued under Boris Johnson’s leadership, and he sought to encapsulate it within the levelling up agenda. While the Northern Powerhouse spoke to ideas of a North-South divide, Johnson has increasingly highlighted the extent of inequality within the North itself. Similarly, levelling up minister, Neil O’Brien has made the point that levelling up is “not about North v South, or city v town”, noting that “there are poor places even in affluent regions”.

In terms of policy themes, there are commonalities between the Northern Powerhouse and Levelling Up, particularly the way in which both agendas, at least rhetorically, highlight the importance of local leadership.

But there are also notable differences. Not only is the geographic focus different, so too is the scope. The Levelling Up White Paper missions include everything from reducing inequalities, improving health outcomes, tackling crime, and boosting pride in place. While laudable, just under three years into this latest agenda, there is unfortunately too little evidence of tangible change so far.

It is the case that Wakefield has received support from both the Levelling Up Fund and the Towns Fund. Yet, it remains that funding for levelling up pales in comparison to local government austerity experienced in the years preceding the new levelling up funding.

This is true across the North. Indeed, the 2021 allocations of the Levelling Up Fund, which is controlled by central government, was an investment of just £32 per person in the North. This compares to a £413 per person drop in the North in annual council service spending over the last decade.

As we at IPPR North have repeatedly called for, levelling up needs to move from rhetoric to reality, and quickly.

Levelling up in Wakefield

Recent polling suggests that many voters in Wakefield feel the same way. A poll by Survation found that three of the top five priorities for voters in the constituency include ‘levelling up’ transport, crime, and health. Although, other local issues and the cost-of-living crisis are currently ranked as even greater concerns for voters in Wakefield.

Much the same sentiments appear common across the rest of the so-called ‘red wall’. Polling by Redfield and Wilton suggests that 60 per cent of voters within it do not think the government has made a clear effort to level up their area. This figure includes 46 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2019.

Across the ‘red wall’, it appears that the government’s ability to deliver on levelling up is distrusted more than its ability to deliver in any other policy area. The same poll suggests that voters across the ‘red wall’ are now more likely to trust Labour to level up their areas rather than the Conservatives.

These findings chime with recent polling carried out by Survation on behalf of IPPR North.

It’s time to deliver

Eight years since the launch of the Northern Powerhouse, we have seen some positive changes across the region, not least in terms of the roll out of devolution to significant parts of the North.

Since 2014, however, the debates around regional inequality in the UK have shifted and the Northern Powerhouse agenda has now been largely overtaken by the rhetoric of levelling up.

While the levelling up agenda is meant to speak directly to voters in places like Wakefield, the polling ahead of the upcoming by-election suggests that it is the lack of action on the agenda so far that has been noted by voters.

For the people of Wakefield, and those across the North and regions like it, it is essential that the government delivers on its pledges.

Ryan Swift is a research fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @RyanSwift93.