This valedictory essay is a series of reflections about the past, the present and the future of the north of England marking my departure as director of IPPR North. Although these are personal reflections, I must acknowledge and thank the immense contribution of IPPR North colleagues – past and present – in shaping so many of these ideas. Their meticulous research, clever insight and unstinting good humour has been instrumental in breathing life into our favourite maxim: that we should be ‘leading not pleading’. And our collective efforts have indeed made the north of England ‘the place to be for progressive policy-making’. So big thanks to all of the following people:

Shaunee Astill, Richard Baker, Darren Baxter, Grace Blakeley, Leonardo Carella, Candice Chau, Maeve Cohen; Will Cook, Rosie Corrigan, Tamsin Crimmens, Bill Davies, Ross Fulton, Ellie Geddes, Katherine Gibney, Lewis Goodall, Graeme Henderson, Jack Hunter, Abi Hynes, Marcus Johns, Michael Johnson, Sarah Jones, Claire Linton, Sarah Longlands, Richard Maclean, Elizabeth Mellor Dan Neilon, Luke Raikes, Anna Round, Katie Schmuecker, Ash Singleton, Sarah Smart, Loraine Sweeney, Evelyn Tehrani, Joanne Thomas, Anna Turley, Amy-Grace Whillans-Welldrake, and Danny Wright.

1. Introduction: then and now

I had a rocky start as director of IPPR North. It was September 2009 and, in my first week in the job, the Northern Rock Foundation announced they were ceasing to fund our work as they slowly folded in the wake of the financial crisis, another prominent figure told me I’d be better off setting up IPPR Scotland as there was ‘no such thing as the North’, and one of my two researchers resigned to take up a more lucrative position at the regional development agency One North East. Signs of the times.

Nearly nine years on and the north of England seems a very different place. As the regional development agencies and their Northern Way initiative were ‘given the Anne Boleyn treatment’ by the bullish Eric Pickles, IPPR North promised to keep the candle of evidence-based policy-making flickering. Some seventy plus reports later, it is no overstatement to say that IPPR North has since shone a bright spotlight on regional inequality in England and has offered literally hundreds of creative ideas on how to fix the North – many of which have been adopted.

Despite very little initial support from the core cities – then determined to do their own thing – or from a newly-elected coalition government preoccupied with administering a toxic cocktail of austerity and localism, we now see metro mayors implementing manifesto commitments lifted straight from the IPPR North playbook as they attempt to rescue and rekindle what’s left of local government and a ‘place-based industrial strategy’ at the heart of central government policy.

And who would have thought that with so much political energy attending to Scotland in recent years, a ‘northern powerhouse’ identity would arise and enter the national debate, growling through the Brexit referendum and quietening the apparently ‘barking dogs’ of Englishness. Of course, much credit must go to the unsuspecting George Osborne for unleashing such a powerful brand, but IPPR North has successfully surfed the wave he created and, despite Osborne’s political fall from grace, the pan-northern tide continues to swell, now from the bottom up.

So where next? With the nation determined to leave the EU – and fixated by how to do so – it is unsurprising that the government’s gaze has wandered and the northern horizon is once again looking as gloomy as it did back in 2009. But in this essay, my last as director of IPPR North, I want to strike a note of optimism and hope.

Reflecting on the policy developments that have been made in the past five years in particular, I will first show that the building blocks for economic resilience are now starting to slot into place. Tackling some of the myths that have attached themselves to how we think about the northern powerhouse, I will then argue that the North could learn from overseas and put itself at the forefront of a new era of economic development in the UK.

And finally, drawing on the latest evidence about collective intelligence, I will set out some novel ideas for what might be called a ‘northern mind’. A new wave of thinking about identity, democracy and policy development in the North that could unleash ideas that have the capacity to put the north of England once again in the vanguard of social and democratic thought and action – and that might just benefit the economy too.

2. The building blocks of economic resilience

One of the first reports IPPR North published on my watch was an analytical piece considering the impact of the global financial crisis on the north of England. The Impact of the Recession on Northern City-Regions (Dolphin 2009) highlighted the irony that although the crisis might have first affected the City of London, it was towns like Bolton, Barnsley and Blyth that were bearing the brunt of job losses and public sector spending cuts. Our response was to form the Northern Economic Futures Commission with a view to developing a long-term strategy for economic development in the North.

The commission brought together private sector players with public servants, academics and representatives of civil society and considered evidence over a period of nearly 18 months, drawing heavily on an OECD study of ‘lagging regions’ across the developed world (OECD 2012). Its case was founded upon the central proposition that the economic fortunes of the north of England are too important for the nation to ignore:

‘With a quarter of the population contributing a fifth of economic output, the northern economy is twice the size of Scotland and, if it were a nation, it would rank as the eighth-largest in the EU, ahead of Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. Just halving the output gap between the North and the national average would increase national economic output by £41 billion.’ (IPPR North and NEFC 2012)

The commission wasn’t the first initiative to adopt a pan-northern approach to economic development and Lord Prescott’s contentious Northern Way was still fresh in the minds of many, but it was the first to set out such a coherent and comprehensive approach. Northern prosperity is national prosperity: A strategy for revitalising the UK economy (IPPR North and NEFC 2012) was prescient in almost every respect. Its vision statement heralded what most refer to now as ‘inclusive growth’:

‘We believe that the north of England is capable of taking its place in the ranks of the most successful northern European economies, with competitive companies trading in global markets, a fully employed and well-skilled workforce, and strong civic leadership that supports growth and shared prosperity.’ (ibid)

And its five-pillar framework for economic growth is surprisingly similar to the ‘five foundations’ that characterise the current government’s recent rediscovery of industrial strategy (HMG 2017). Indeed, had we published it today we would no doubt have called it a Northern Industrial Strategy.

The strategy itself contained 12 main recommendations which effectively represented our building blocks for northern economic recovery. From jobs and skills to transport, trade and metro mayors, it would be impossible to chart every development that has happened in the five years since its publication. However, bearing in mind that at its point of publication nobody had ever uttered the words ‘northern powerhouse’ and its level of ambition seemed a long way off any mainstream agenda, a short survey of these recommendations demonstrates a level of progress none of the commissioners – nor anyone at IPPR North – imagined might be possible in such a short space of time.

Recommendation 1: Full employment must be the foundation of prosperity in the north of England. In the next decade, we should aim to increase private sector employment by 500,000 in the North, on the way to a long-term goal of an employment rate of 80 per cent (ages 16–64).

By 2016/17, precisely 515,900 more people were employed in the private sector in the north of England than had been the case in 2011/12 – a 10.5 per cent increase. To have predicted so accurately such extraordinary levels of job growth was as much down to chance as good judgement, but insofar as the commission recognised the centrality of a private sector-led recovery in the North, this narrative has been sustained throughout the period and northern businesses have stepped up to the mark. There is no room for complacency though, as I shall go on to show. The quality as well as quantity of jobs has never been far from our concerns and as we went on to argue in our second State of the North report in 2015 (Cox and Raikes 2015), the quality of the jobs being created has now become one of our four ‘tests’ for the northern powerhouse.

Recommendation 2: The National Apprenticeship Service and its partners should aim to double the number of young people in advanced (level 3) apprenticeships by 2015 from 30,000 to 60,000.

Recommendation 3: We recommend the devolution of a significant proportion of skills and welfare-to-work funding to local authorities and their partners in city regions such as Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, as well as in their rural counterparts.

By 2015/16 there were 37,490 apprenticeship starts for young people aged 24 and below in the north of England – an increase of 12.8 per cent from 2011/12, so at the lower end of our intentions. Once again though, our recommendation predated the coalition government’s big apprenticeship push and the subsequent concerns for technical education. It is also important to note that skills devolution has become a central theme of subsequent ‘devo deals’ and the education and skills agenda has recently come to the forefront of Northern Powerhouse policy debate. IPPR North has been trailblazing on this agenda for years:

  • Our report, Northern schools (Clifton et al 2016), identified significant funding disparities between schools in London and the North, and an alarming ‘early years gap’ affecting poorer children before they even hit school age.
  • Our recent report, Skills for the North (Round 2018), identified the good practice emerging in several northern city regions but the huge limitations to further improvements caused by spending cuts and the piecemeal approach to skills devolution.

Recommendation 4: To support and galvanise business innovation and growth in the North, we recommend the formation of a Northern Innovation Council, bringing together leading universities, employers and local authorities.

Alongside the focus on transport, innovation investment has been a key plank of the government’s northern powerhouse agenda, with major investments in the Sir Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials research in Manchester, the Hartree Centre in Daresbury, the Connected Health Cities initiative, and no fewer than 17 Enterprise Zones and more than five Science and Innovation Audits.

The Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review in 2016 identified four world-leading sectoral capabilities across the North which gave relevant protagonists an evidence base upon which to ground investment decisions and a framework to support local industrial strategies. IPPR North has subsequently produced detailed reports on each.

Most recently, Innovate UK has commissioned a study to identify the most suitable institutional framework to support and coordinate northern innovation in the future – our Northern Innovation Council is very much on the cards.

Recommendation 5: To secure higher levels of inward investment to the north of England and boost its export capacity, we propose the formation of a Northern Investment and Trade Board tasked with developing a small number of key trade and investment priorities for the North at a significant scale and improving co-ordination between local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and UKTI sector specialists.

IPPR North’s UK First? report (Cox et al 2013) lifted the lid on the failings of UKTI’s London-centric approach to attracting inward investment. Since then the approach has changed. The Department for International Trade has established a ‘Northern Powerhouse Team’ and produced a special ‘pitchbook’ to inform an increasing number of trade delegations to the far east and elsewhere. Recent EY regional attractiveness surveys have shown a huge upturn in northern fortunes bearing out the strength of the northern powerhouse as a brand and offering investment opportunities at scale. Most recently, Sir Richard Leese has convened a working group of key players from across the northern city regions to coordinate efforts still further – once again, it seems only a matter of time before this becomes the Northern Investment and Trade Board the commission recommended.

Recommendation 6: We recommend a major decentralisation of transport powers to local authorities and passenger transport executives, including powers over regional franchising, concessionary fares and management of local stations. We also propose the creation of a new body – Transport for the North – to take power over the northern rail franchise, major hub stations, rolling stock and smart ticketing.

Possibly the most obvious and significant development in the north of England in the past few years has been the formation of Transport for the North. Having first coined the term in early 2011, IPPR North’s blueprint as to how it should develop provided a framework for its transition from Rail North (a body established to co-design and commission the new northern railway franchises) to a fully-fledged statutory transport body with a coherent strategic transport plan would appear to have been closely adopted (Cox and Raikes 2015).

But although northern leaders have shown unprecedented cohesion and determination to make such rapid progress, the Department for Transport has been notably pedestrian, with transport ministers preferring to contest IPPR North’s transport spending figures rather than pledge significant new investment in enhancing the North’s creaking transport infrastructure. Until now government has been able to hide behind its claim that Transport for the North had more work to do to bring forward investible schemes. But as Northern Powerhouse Rail, not to mention a significant number of other priorities, move further along the pipeline, government will come under growing pressure to put its money where its mouth is, as well as grant Transport for the North similar fiscal powers to those enjoyed by Transport for London.

Recommendation 7: In order to address national airport capacity concerns and expand connections between the North and key export markets, Manchester Airport should become a second international airport hub for the UK.

Of all the commission’s recommendations this was perhaps the least realistic. Despite significant growth at Manchester Airport, the national debate has focused on airport capacity in the south. When HS2 is finally up and running it may be that the role of Manchester Airport as a national asset becomes more apparent, but the Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission (Davies 2015) could only countenance the growth of regional airport capacity as an alternative to a fourth – rather than a third – runway at Heathrow.

Recommendation 8: We recommend the decentralisation of housing finance – housing benefit and capital funding for building homes – into sub-regional housing funds. Local authorities, individually or as combined authorities, would be able to switch spending from rent subsidies into building new homes, strike deals with local landlords over rent levels, and plan more systematically for meeting their local housing needs.

Our radical and ambitious plans for a ‘benefits-to-bricks’ approach to housing finance remains a long way ahead of its time but proposals for more limited approaches to housing devolution set out in our subsequent report, Closer to home (Snelling and Davies 2016), have been met more favourably. Many ‘devo deals’ have made provision for mayoral development corporations, special compulsory purchase orders and other planning powers and, in the case of Greater Manchester, a significant housing loan fund. As with other aspects of devolution, such steps are relatively modest – but with the major northern housing agencies now forming Homes for the North, there is a growing appreciation that national housing policy is overly skewed in favour of the specific features of London’s housing market, and a more flexible approach is required to address the distinctive housing challenges in the North.

Recommendation 9: We support the creation of a British Investment Bank, but recommend a regional allocation of funds made according to a formula that combines population with economic potential. This would ringfence funding for the north of England, creating a northern investment capacity within the British Investment Bank.

This recommendation has been implemented to the letter. The £400 million Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund – delivered by the British Investment Bank – is investing in collaboration with the 11 northern local enterprise partnerships, providing long-term finance for SMEs in combination with the European Regional Development Fund. Its long-term future remains uncertain, and the North is still some way from having the regional banking infrastructure seen in countries like Germany and Sweden, but this is limited progress nonetheless.

Recommendation 10: We recommend the formation of a single funding pot for economic growth in local enterprise partnership areas. This pot of non-ringfenced funding should include the decentralisation of government funding streams – capital and revenue – based on a clear and transparent formula.

The commission’s recommendations for long-term, flexible funding was echoed by subsequent reports such as the Adonis Review and the London Finance Commission. Once again, devo deals represented the ideal mechanism through which the then chancellor, George Osborne, could offer significant investment funds. Greater Manchester and Liverpool city regions both received funds nearing £1 billion over 30 years and Tees Valley £0.5 billion. However, this is relatively small beer on an annual basis and other city regions have not felt these levels of funding have provided sufficient incentive to adopt a metro mayor.

Recommendation 11: The commission advocates the development of more transparent governance arrangements based on the combined authority model pioneered by Greater Manchester and Leeds city region but with a greater regard for more direct democratic accountability. We therefore recommend the adoption where possible of directly elected ‘metro mayors’ or a suitably named rural alternative.

With metro mayors now elected in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley and Sheffield City Region, this recommendation may well represent the commission’s most notable success. Despite the sceptics predicting widespread apathy, the newly elected mayors in the North – and elsewhere – have quickly become household names in their respective cities and have moved to use their limited powers to good effect, many drawing from IPPR North’s ‘prospectus’ of 30 policy ideas for England’s new leaders (Raikes 2017). Few would doubt that they have raised the profile of their city regions on the national stage and have created a platform that will be far harder to remove than was the case with the ill-fated regional development agencies.

It would appear though that there is still some way to go before many parts of the North catch up with these pioneers. The prospects of devo deals with more rural areas have been bolstered a little by the prospective North of Tyne deal but the fragmentation of the North East over recent years demonstrates that devolution can deliver sub-optimal results. The ‘One Yorkshire’ deal, which at first seemed a pipe dream, appears to be edging nearer and would trump both Manchester and Birmingham in terms of scale and opportunity. But it remains to be seen whether Yorkshire leaders can pull such a deal off, and what consequences it would have for the wider notion of the northern powerhouse.

Recommendation 12: As a first step in a process of establishing a more clear and coherent northern voice, the commission proposes a Northern Leaders’ Convention to be held on an annual basis and supported by a small secretariat, followed by an N11 Leaders Summit comprising one political and one business leader from each of the 11 LEP areas in the North.

There’s been no shortage of northern powerhouse conferences and events in recent years - too many dominated by white, middle-aged men talking transport. Last year’s big UK Northern Powerhouse Conference was mired in controversy over the poor representation of women, which led IPPR North to collaborate with others to organise a People’s Powerhouse conference in July. Our annual State of the North conferences have also provided opportunities for an annual stock-take of progress and reflection on future directions, and last year’s Transport Summit, organised by the newly-elected Labour mayors, demonstrated the potential for northern leaders to speak with a single voice.

Until recently though, northern leaders have been cautious about collaborating too visibly – other than through the Transport for the North Partnership Board with its safely circumspect agenda, and amongst the elite group of core city leaders. Metro mayors, the government’s intransigence on transport spending, Brexit and a growing trust between northern leaders might all be reasons why in the past six months there seems to have been a change in mood on the virtues of closer pan-northern collaboration. As well as new forums on innovation and inward investment (see above), there is now a plan to hold the first ‘Convention of the North’ in parallel with this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North. Details have yet to be announced but we are edging ever closer to a ‘Council of the North’ of the kind I proposed in last year’s pamphlet, Taking back control in the North (Cox 2017).

Aside from these separate successes, perhaps the most surprising and significant development since the Northern Economic Futures Commission concluded its work was the announcement by Chancellor George Osborne in June 2014 that he wanted to build a northern powerhouse:

‘There is a hard truth we need to address. The cities of the North are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that’s not healthy for our economy. It’s not good for our country. We need a northern powerhouse too. Not one city, but a collection of northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world.’ (Osborne 2014)

Subsequent speeches elaborated the idea with faster, more frequent train services between cities dominating his agenda, together with significant investment in key innovation assets and the strong leadership promised by metro mayors. Backed by Lord Jim O’Neill, whose concept of ‘Man-Sheff-Leeds-Pool’ characterised the city-centric vision behind the powerhouse proposals, Osborne’s vision for a more vibrant northern economy galvanised large swathes of the business community in particular, and captured something of the national imagination too. Despite lacking much definition, with the chancellor at the helm it quickly superseded IPPR North’s more nuanced propositions and, until the EU referendum slammed on the brakes, we were able to align so many of our ideas with the narrative emanating out of Her Majesty’s Treasury.

So given the remarkable progress that would appear to have been made since the publication of Northern prosperity is national prosperity in 2012 (IPPR North and NEFC 2012), perhaps the most pertinent question to be asked of our work up until now would be: has it been radical enough?

It is very clear to me that the basic building blocks for greater economic resilience in the North are now being put into place: transport strategies, innovation councils, trade boards and even leaders’ conventions. But each initiative is partial and piecemeal, devolution seems stalled and there remains a level of incoherence that makes for a very fragile powerhouse indeed.

In this respect, IPPR North has attempted to coordinate different aspects of the agenda, taking a quiet, bottom-up approach through a process that has become known as the ‘Great North Plan’. Originating as a competition for innovative transport ideas, the Great North Plan process mobilised over 500 stakeholders from across the North in a bid to develop a shared and integrated approach to different aspects of economic development. Our Blueprint for a Great North Plan (IPPR North and RTPI 2016) identified a series of principles to guide and integrate work on transport, energy, demographic change and other economic sectors and the Great North Plan Steering Group remains the only forum where multi-disciplinary pan-northern policy-makers share their plans and ideas.

But although the steering group attempts to be a comprehensive and integrative group with a lot of common understanding, it is clear in that forum that there are competing visions for the future of the northern economy and there are very different narratives and goals that drive the individual actions of different members of the group. This is even more the case when looking further afield: ministers, mayors, businesses and universities – not to mention northern citizens – all have very different perceptions of the nature and value of the so-called northern powerhouse. Such diversity of thought and opinion is to be celebrated. The North will be so much the better for a variety of views, but too much thinking depends on a small number of myths and misconceptions. And if the building blocks of northern economic resilience are going to be assembled effectively and northern powerhouse thinking is to mature into effective policy-making, a number of these northern powerhouse myths need quickly to be knocked on the head.

3. Northern powerhouse myths

Exaggeration, even falsehood, form a familiar part of contemporary political life and the northern powerhouse has not been immune to the art of political lying. In my time as director of IPPR North, no fewer than four transport secretaries have, using different approaches, attempted to explain the gross disparities in transport spending between London and the north of England – with the current incumbent recategorising billions of pounds worth of expenditure in London with a view to muddying the waters (Raikes 2018). The creative graphical presentation of spikes of urban jobs and large arrows denoting graduate flows to the south, for example, have frequently distorted perceptions and generated narratives that have supported particular interests. IPPR North has itself been accused of choosing metrics to suit its own agenda.

Perhaps this is to be expected, but it detracts from healthy debate. It sets up false narratives and expectations and damages what we might consider to be the North’s ‘collective intelligence’. In his recent book, Big Mind (Mulgan 2018), Geoff Mulgan very helpfully articulates a ‘system of learning’ that might be relevant to this situation. Mulgan distinguishes between what he calls first-loop, second-loop and third-loop learning:

‘First-loop learning is what we recognise as everyday thought … We begin with models of how the world works as well as models of thinking, and then we gather data about the external and internal worlds, based on categories. Then we act and observe when the world does or does not respond as expected.’ (ibid)

This is a good characterisation of the approach adopted by most in central and local government and their agencies – indeed, it describes very well the approach to regional policy that has been adopted for many decades. Whether it has been transport, skills, inward investment or metro mayors, evidence is presented, policies are adopted and we wait to see whether things improve. Policy priorities in the North ebb and flow as new ministers come and go, as new facts come to light, and as perceptions from the bottom up alter political priorities from the top down. But as Mulgan explains, first-loop learning often gives rise to confirmation biases and, while it helps us get by, it rarely gives rise to the transformational change that many might hope to see.

Second-loop learning involves ‘creating new categories to think with … spotting patterns and generating frames’ and it ‘involves the ability to reflect on goals and means’ (ibid). In many ways we could argue that the Northern Economic Futures Commission and the subsequent northern powerhouse narrative are good examples of this. Together they have given us a new framework and a fresh language with which to explore the economic challenges facing the northern economy. The idea of a pan-northern approach to economic strategy and planning though, is still in its infancy. We are still arguing over goals and means; we are still spotting patterns and generating frames.

It is in this context then of second-loop learning that I want to argue that some of the concepts that are being applied have been borrowed and adapted from schools of thought that are less helpful in understanding the true nature of the northern economy. Some of the framing is based on inaccurate or partial data, and some of the goals and means do not represent the kind of North that its citizens might wish to see.

There are three commonly held nostrums about the northern powerhouse that I believe require recalibrating and reframing: three ‘myths’ that need retelling using second-loop learning to redevelop our thinking about the future of the North.

Myth 1: The primary goal of the northern economy should be to narrow its productivity gap with London

Few people ever explicitly state the vision or purpose of an economy, not least at a regional scale, but insofar as there has been any justification for all the recent focus on the North, it has usually been to highlight the need for higher levels of productivity. These are almost always characterised in terms of the large difference between north and south. The current chancellor Philip Hammond, for example, has claimed that if the productivity gap between London and the South East and the rest of the country could be halved then it could increase GDP by 9 per cent, adding more than £150 billion to the economy (see Mason 2016).

Regional rebalancing in England is a laudable and urgent aim. Levels of regional inequality in the UK are unprecedented in comparison with almost any other developed nation and there is ample evidence of a north/south divide on a range of different metrics. But when it comes to measures of productivity, the huge disparity between the North and London is explained far more by the phenomenal productivity of inner London than any sense that the north of England is somehow lagging.

Evidence for a huge productivity gap is accurate but it has become a rod with which to beat the North far more than an indication of the frighteningly unsustainable levels of growth in London. The north/south productivity divide tells us much more about London as a global mega-city than it does about the North as a national whipping boy. And if as a nation we were really concerned with closing the gap, the easiest route to achieving that would involve a levelling down of inner London’s runaway growth as much as any prospect of the North catching up. Many of the most productive regions in the rest of Europe can’t keep up with London and yet few use that as their principal benchmark.

It is also important to remember that London’s extraordinary productivity is of much less benefit to the rest of the nation than is often assumed. Its ‘spillovers’ are not only limited, but since 2000 they have been diminishing. As Phil McCann shows, since the turn of the century the UK has been breaking apart, with the economies of London and Scotland becoming increasingly economically self-sufficient and drawing on a greater share of the public purse (McCann 2016).

None of this is to diminish the worryingly low levels of productivity in the North. GDP per capita in the North is below that of Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia as well as parts of Poland and southern Italy (Brown 2016). It is important though to reframe our debates about the north/south divide in terms of London and its unique role in the nation, while at the same time shifting the goal and purpose of the northern economy away from trying to catch up with London, and instead moving towards creating the kind of economy northern citizens might prefer.

At IPPR North we have consistently argued that northern productivity would be far better measured against similar regions in other parts of Europe. It is not that the North necessarily fares that much more favourably against the Southern Netherlands, North Rhine Westphalia in Germany, or Asturias in Spain, but that they at least represent meaningful comparisons between economies with similar histories and sectoral strengths and weaknesses.

Alongside this, productivity measures are not necessarily the only means of judging a region’s success. There is growing criticism of GDP measures – both because they fail to capture a true picture of the economy, but also because there might be other metrics which tell us more or different things about regional wellbeing. Happiness, poverty and levels of inequality have all been suggested as additions to the ways in which we might compare a region’s progress and it may well be that national perceptions of the North (and indeed London) might change if we started to report a wider range of indicators of economic and social wellbeing (Colebrook 2018).

Myth 2: The northern powerhouse ‘potential’ hinges on the strengths of the big cities of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield

A focus on the north/south productivity gap naturally leads to wider comparisons between cities and their relative sizes and economic activities. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the cities of the North would be better if they had more of the characteristics of London. This narrative is most clearly articulated through its chief protagonists George Osborne and Jim O’Neill and their Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP). In its first report last year the NPP stated: “It is the geographic closeness of four of the core cities (Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield) that creates the key ‘powerhouse’ potential in the North” (NPP 2017).

Of course, there is much to be said for the vital roles played by these big cities and it is undeniable that as they flourish the North flourishes, and when they suffer the whole region will struggle. But these ideas are based more on a hugely popular urban groupthink than they are on actual evidence about the nature and shape of the northern economy.

Protagonists of these ideas draw on ample academic evidence. In the US, New Economic Geography and other types of urban economic modelling have focused much attention on the concept of agglomeration – the propensity of firms and workers to concentrate in urban centres in order to maximise their efficiency. Such modelling is supported by long-standing international evidence of productivity increasing as cities grow, the movement of highly skilled graduates to urban centres, and clear relationships between cities and the burgeoning knowledge economy. In the UK, such arguments are supported by highly respected institutions such as the Spatial Economics Research Centre (SERC) at the London School of Economics who argue that the consequence of such analysis is for public investment to be concentrated in those places where it is likely to generate the greatest bang for its buck.

But despite their intuitive appeal and salience in policy-making circles, these arguments don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny. There are significant methodological challenges associated with agglomeration modelling (Cox and Longlands 2016) but perhaps more importantly, since the turn of the millennium, the empirical evidence for agglomeration simply doesn’t stack up.

Globally, it is not true that the largest cities are necessarily the most productive: OECD studies have shown that since the 1990s it is in fact the smaller and medium-sized cities, with populations of around one million, that exhibit the greatest productivity growth, and that there is something of a U-shaped curve in relation to city size and per capita productivity (OECD 2006). In the UK, McCann’s extensive study (McCann 2016) finds that in the 14 largest cities outside London, there is no clear relationship between either urban scale or urban density and levels of productivity, while a study for the Government Office for Science’s ‘Foresight’ project (Martin et al 2014) shows that there is actually a negative relationship between city size and growth rate in the UK.

On the other side of the coin, smaller towns and cities in the UK have consistently been growing faster than nearby core cities. This is most obvious in places such as Cambridge and Reading but it’s also true for northern towns such as Warrington, Wakefield and Durham (Cox and Longlands 2014). While there are clearly northern towns that are still struggling with post-industrial transformation, a recent study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that no local authority area in the north of England is losing population and many have close interdependencies with their nearest city (Pike et al 2016).

The idea that the North needs to become more like London is supported by a series of other false propositions, not least the idea of a skills ‘brain-drain’ from north to south (see for example Centre for Cities 2016). On the face of it, the numbers of students leaving northern universities and heading to London for their first job does appear large. But dig a little deeper and you find that many of them originated in the south and are just returning home. In fact, the growing numbers of northern students studying and staying in the North suggests levels of regional loyalty unmatched anywhere outside Scotland. These figures are not normally captured by commonly used statistics. And graduate brain-drain studies fail to mention the growing number of thirty-something ‘boomerangers’ who are increasingly returning north in search of lower house prices and a better quality of life. Once again, migration patterns in the UK are far more a function of the metrics we choose to use than the realities on the ground.

There are three reasons why the myth of city size and agglomeration holds such great appeal. First, our ‘evidence’ draws too narrowly on data and analysis taken from the US and Japan. As Djkstra states:

‘The role played by cities in the economic growth of many other rich and emerging countries is rather more varied than observations of the North American and East Asian cases would imply. For many countries, and particularly for the countries of Europe, the picture is very much more heterogeneous, and understanding the implications of this heterogeneity for public policy requires careful analysis and consideration which moves beyond standard tenets.’ (Djkstra et al 2013)

Secondly, we seem to be particularly receptive to obvious truisms about cities. The fact that by 2050 more than 85 per cent of the world’s population will live in a city may well be true and even compelling, but it tells us precious little about the type of city, its level of productivity, the quality of urban living or its relationships with other cities. We seem incredibly susceptible to some of the most tendentious ideas about the future of the economy if they are framed by a ‘city expert’, and so are easily drawn to a very limited set of policy options.

And thirdly, our urban imagination is captured too easily by policy makers and commentators living or working in London – where agglomeration effects are part of their everyday experience and for whom the attractions of urban living are completely clear. For those who determine the policy choices with which we are asked to engage, why would anyone not aspire to creating a new London in the North?

Myth 3: There is no such thing as ‘the North’

As director of IPPR North, never a week has passed without somebody asking, ‘so what is the North?’ The standard answer – the three NUTS 1 regions of the North West, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber, albeit with fuzzy boundaries and multiple identities therein – rarely satisfies the questioner as almost everybody has their own opinion on what does or doesn’t constitute northern identity.

In the North East, there is a strong sense of being from ‘the true North’, ‘the North of the North’ and the term ‘North’ is easily conflated with ‘North East’, with a level of contempt for those in Manchester or Leeds who might deem themselves northerners. This has become all the more the case as ideas of a northern powerhouse focused on and around Manchester has increased the sense of peripherality in the North East.

In Yorkshire, being northern is often seen as secondary to having a strong regional identity – an identity which seems to be growing stronger in light of recent cultural developments such as the Tour de Yorkshire and political ones such as the formation of a growing Yorkshire Party and the possibility of a One Yorkshire deal.

And few identify with the term ‘North West’. The rivalries between the great cities of Manchester and Liverpool are only trumped by the more parochial rivalries between Lancastrian towns or the general grievance in Cumbria that it is roundly forgotten altogether. It is little wonder that of the three northern regions, the regional development agency in the North West was most quickly and easily dismantled.

But to deduce from all this that there is no such thing as the North is both to deny history and to misunderstand our post-modern condition. Our recent history may well be one of local fragmentation but this overlooks our deeper traditions. At various times through history, cultural and political identity in the North has coalesced in opposition to perceived threats from both south and north. As far back as the 10th and 11th centuries, northern armies bandied together to deter both Norman and Scottish invasions; and from the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) to Peterloo (1819), northerners have come together to resist religious and political overbearence from the south. Dave Russell in his excellent book, Looking North, suggests a ‘genealogy of northern stereotyping’ through which ‘the North was being constructed from the centre in a definite and opinionated way from at least the 12th century and while northern self-representation may have lagged behind somewhat – the evidence is patchy – it was certainly visible by the 16th century and possibly before’ (Russell 2004). Even in the past two centuries, Russell tracks the ebbs and flows of northern identification, highlighting high points in the 1840s, the 1930s, 1957–64 and the 1980s (ibid). One wonders whether the northern powerhouse and Brexit vote represents what might be considered the latest upturn.

Throughout history, the people of the North have both celebrated and set aside their differences to bring about social and economic transformation. And in our postmodern world this can easily happen again. Despite strong local identification, together with identities based on ethnicity, religion and other individual characteristics, people today are very comfortable living with multiple and nested identities. I can be both Mancunian and Northern simultaneously and my political and cultural identification can shift according to circumstance and context.

This more nuanced understanding of regional identity causes Paul Morley to reflect as follows:

‘The beauty of the north is that it is all about difference and a refusal to sacrifice a pungent hard-won sense of difference. This difference, from the south, from those close by, explicitly represents an independence that has been difficult to officially, formally achieve, and this difference, this abstract independence of thought, is loudly, boldly, brazenly, excessively, romantically and sometimes subtly represented through the walk and talk that the classic northerner uses even when it appears to confirm and clarify the cold, simple and undermining stereotyping that the northerner traditionally – and yet radically – despises.’ (Morley 2013)

We are North by being many norths. We are North by not being south. As in Said’s cultural theorising about orientalism, we own our northernness and dispel our differences in order to reappropriate and subvert the negative stereotyping that the southern media so often labels ‘North’.

At a time when political and cultural identities are constantly being reframed and reformed across Europe and where, in countries such as Italy and Spain, regional identification is once again coming to the fore (see for example Giovannini 2016), to decide that there is no such thing as the North is both culturally myopic and politically naïve.

4. The North as a system of collective intelligence

If each of these myths diverts attention away from some of the key issues, concepts and goals that would serve northern interests far more effectively than is currently the case, what better ideas might replace them? In this final section I will draw on further thinking about collective intelligence and propose five ways in which the north of England needs to think and act as more of an autonomous system.

Earlier in this essay I argued that recent thinking about regional policy and industrial strategy can be characterised as ‘first-loop learning’ – the ability to reflect and act on the evidence around us within an existing framework. I then argued that more coherent thinking about the northern economy and notions of a northern powerhouse represented a step change to ‘second-loop learning’ – the ability to create new categories and models to think with – but that this second-loop learning was in its infancy and hangs too much on a series of misconceptions I called ‘myths’. Here I want to argue that the North needs some different concepts to build on which might in turn lead to what Geoff Mulgan calls ‘third-loop learning’: rethinking how to think altogether and to live in a different way.

In his book, Big Mind, Mulgan poses some challenging questions which seem pertinent here: ‘How does a whole system think from the bottom up as well as the top down? How does it imagine radical new options? And how can a system think like a system?’ (Mulgan 2017). The first task he argues is for the system to ‘know itself’ and so my first three propositions in this section all consider how the North can better identify itself as a more autonomous system. But beyond this it needs to develop processes of what Mulgan calls ‘autonomous intelligence’, whereby we have the capabilities to ‘force the system to attend to what really matters.’ My fourth and fifth propositions suggest two ways we might do this.

The North as a mega-region

First, we need to understand the North as a large-scale region. Economic governance and strategic planning in England is conflicted. On the one hand there is growing recognition that our local enterprise partnership areas are too fragmented and small, but on the other that England is too big. While there seems little appetite for a return to the nine regional development agencies of yesteryear, the possibility of large-scale collaboration across mega-regions like the north of England would seem increasingly sensible. As I described in section 1, several pan-northern regional partnerships are already emerging and it seems only a matter of time before there is convergence under some form of ‘Council of the North’.

Our cities will remain crucial building blocks for the regional economy, but rather than see ‘agglomeration-as-concentration’ we need to understand that in the north of England our economy will be better served by ‘agglomeration-as-connectivity’ within and between city regions. Far from establishing a new London in the North, we need a very different approach to regional economic development which recognises the fundamental value of the economic strengths that lie outside our city limits. It is telling that in the Northern Independent Economic Review (SQW 2016) the assets that support ‘prime capabilities’ such as energy and advanced manufacturing lie outside cities, and Transport for the North who commissioned the study clearly recognise the importance of intraregional connectivity as much as intercity travel.

Perhaps though the most compelling argument for seeing the North as a mega-region comes from the work of Phil McCann who systematically proves that so many of the commonly held concerns about particular drivers of economic growth in the North – transport, education, skills, etc – are the symptoms of weak economic performance more than its causes (McCann 2016). He argues that for an economy facing regional rather than urban problems, we need regional rather than urban solutions. England’s fundamental problem is the lack of regional governance structures of the kind common to almost every other developed nation of a similar size. These structures need the autonomy to mobilise the appropriate local players, institutions, knowledge and capital in order to develop effective responses to global shocks and opportunities (ibid).

While there is no clear evidence about the optimum size of such regions, there is an emerging academic consensus that it lies between 6 and 12 million people (Bell and Eisner 2015). However, while being able to define the scale and scope of the northern system is fundamentally important, it is insufficient without two further factors: vision and identity.

A new vision for the North

Secondly then, we should eschew the idea of becoming a new London in the North in favour of more autonomous goals. The Northern Economic Futures Commission identified two baskets of indicators by which to measure northern futures and a small set of comparator regions in Europe. In our 2015 State of the North report we set out four further tests for the northern powerhouse concerning job quality, education, infrastructure investment and governance (Cox and Raikes 2015). These are all favourable to any single measure of GDP or any enthusiasm to become more like London.

More fundamentally, our work on a Great North Plan and with the People’s Powerhouse and Youth Council of the North has uncovered a deeper desire on the part of northern citizens to debate and to describe their own vision of the good life in the North. This is not a simple task – indeed it is more of an ongoing process, much like the painting of the bridges over the Tyne – but if the North is to see itself as a system of collective intelligence then it needs to invent the ways and means to do this.

Each year our State of the North report and conference has attempted to put down a marker in time, celebrating progress and acknowledging challenges, but also charting ideas about the future too. We need more of this. We need more public spaces and social movements through which our visions for the North can be articulated and argued about, bringing people together from a wide range of places, backgrounds and sectors.

Being northern as an emerging political identity

Thirdly, we should celebrate and nurture our northern identity, acknowledging that local identities are a vital part of what it means to be northern and holding the two in tension and in sync. The outward signs of ‘northernness’ are already enjoying something of a resurgence. The northern powerhouse brand has galvanised business and many others, particularly those on the centre and right of politics. At the same time, the Brexit referendum generated some interesting geographical narratives about the numbers of northerners voting to Leave. Even simple things like Northern Rail’s ‘We are Northern’ advertising campaign has sought to challenge stereotypes while at the same time reinforcing notions of regional loyalty.

There is nothing ‘pure’ or ‘natural’ about how we form and reform identities and it is perfectly normal for people to nurture or promote regional identification to achieve social and political ends. It is such regional political identity that has led to the rise of a number of regional parties in the North including, at the 2015 general election, a ‘Northern Party’ with a coherent pan-northern policy platform. Such identification needs encouragement and stimulation but to succeed it will also need democratic systems worthy of our times.

The North as a new democratic system

Since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump there has been much reflection on the state of British democracy. The inadequacies of an electoral system in which the vast majority of votes count for very little indeed, the perverse incentives which seem to drive the behaviour of our political parties and the steady erosion of some the wider systems that support a healthy democracy – citizen education, a free press and an independent judiciary – have all been subject to scrutiny (see Grayling 2018; Runciman 2018). To the cynic, democracy serves as a system of mitigating mob rule, but at its best democracy takes on the very mantle of collective intelligence.

The north of England has a rich tradition for democratic innovation and social change and so – linked to the process of re-identification – we should once again make our region the fulcrum for asking big questions of the parliamentary system, democratic experiment and a social movement for democratic change.

The precise nature and shape of this new democracy needs to be part of the way we reshape our vision for a new North – but it must necessarily move beyond the narrow and tribal interests of the current political party system and adopt more deliberative and participative approaches to complement if not replace the straitjacket of elected representation. In my essay, Taking back control in the North (Cox 2017), I describe a system which builds on our emerging pan-northern forums and committees to form a Council of the North. But I also set out some sketchy plans for a Northern Citizens Assembly – a deliberative body of over 200 northern citizens who would meet twice a year to set out plans and visions, to frame questions and options, and to scrutinise the actions of other system leaders. These are but a couple of ideas for democratic reform – there is scope for many more.

The North as a knowledge commons

Finally, taking the concept of collective intelligence in its most immediate form, the North needs to respond to the digital revolution in radical new ways. As is increasingly clear, the internet is currently dominated by a small number of private companies and organised upon business principles better suited to selling products than sharing intelligence. Once again, Mulgan is instructive on this matter in recognising that far from being a site for commercial competition, the internet could be much better conceived as a classic ‘commons’ – somewhere where value is common or shared, and which is ‘owned, governed, and financed in a shared way (but not run by the state)’ (Mulgan 2018).

Clearly there is no obvious or particular reason why the north of England might adopt this way of thinking about our digital future ahead of any other region or indeed nation. However, once again this could become part of how we form a new regional vision and identity which distinguishes what it means to be ‘North’.

Despite the near-zero marginal cost of distributing information, the provision of digital technologies and the creation of data is not free and the ways in which such infrastructures and innovations are financed and funded need some reconsideration. Could, for example, the north of England pioneer new ways to invest in a genuine knowledge commons which might work most effectively at this regional scale? And could our established commercial leadership in many aspects of data storage and analysis, together with our health innovation expertise, mesh machine intelligence with human learning to form new types of collective consciousness born in the North?

The idea of a ‘northern mind’ may well conjure up fears of a dystopian future, but if it is not with us already it is very close. In truth our worst fears are very unlikely to be realised – just as technological turns over many centuries have tended towards an ‘evolution of wisdom’, it is highly probable that new forms of collective intelligence will do so too (ibid). But rather than sliding towards the end of ethics and ideas of self, let us at the very least make sure the North is not the victim or ‘recipient’ of the quiet revolution taking place. And better still let us be its pioneers.

And finally …

It has been my privilege, as director of IPPR North, to move between the processes of first-, second- and occasionally third-loop learning and to contribute in a unique way to what we increasingly perceive to be a ‘new North’. These ideas about the scale, vision and identity of the North, together with some of the opportunities for its democratic and digital systems, are nothing but a brief sketch of the kind of North we might imagine in the future. My final reflection though concerns the exercise of power in shaping northern futures, for systems of learning do not happen in a vacuum and are not as ‘neutral’ as this exposition might imply.

While I enjoy taking reasonable credit for many of the achievements set out in the first part of this essay, the truth is that the power and privilege associated with IPPR North derives from a brand and a way of working that few have access to. The confirmation biases that sit so easily with first-loop learning are rooted in a relatively small network of ‘key players’ whose echo chamber is insulated from so many voices on the margins.

The idea of a northern powerhouse, complete with metrocentric myths and the contradictions of devo-austerity, could only have taken hold if wielded by a chancellor and his Treasury team. Second-loop learning – the framing of goals and means – is so often the domain of the powerful: developing and asserting new narratives privileging ego over evidence.

So if the North as a new democratic system, a knowledge commons or a collective intelligence is going to break this mould, it must address issues of power and privilege head-on. From the very outset we must acknowledge that new forms of democracy will destabilise the old guard – not least the mainstream political parties – and champion them in the face of vested interests. In its very foundation, a northern knowledge commons must create much more inclusive digital infrastructures which provide free access to data and analysis for everyone. We must not let monopolistic interests control the cybersphere. And as we develop ideas of a northern collective intelligence we must ensure that we mobilise the wisdom of the crowd just as much as any expert voice.

IPPR North has provided the most wonderful platform to establish and nurture a pan-northern agenda and I have little doubt it will go from strength to strength as it widens and deepens the concerns we have explored together over recent years. For my part, a new adventure awaits: new opportunities to ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’. But one thing won’t change: I will keep striving for a more autonomous and inclusive North and I won’t spare any effort in taking bold steps towards it.

Ed Cox is outgoing Director of IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.