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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

A Brexit vision for a brazen North

Today the House of Lords debate IPPR North's State of the North report. But IPPR North director Ed Cox argues the North can't wait on government - the North must think up its own radical vision for life after Brexit. He calls on the public to suggest radical ideas to fire up the northern economy post-Brexit.

Too many commentators have chosen to dismiss 2016 as a thoroughly bad year. I suspect history will judge it more kindly. From a Northern perspective, it may well go down as the year that Northerners once again found a collective voice. The Brexit vote marked a turning point for the nation, but all the more so for the North.

Following the Scottish referendum, it was only a matter of time before those south of the border with similar concerns about how far their interests were being represented at the centre took their opportunity to send a clear message of discontent. If as a nation the people spoke, in the North they shouted.

Although in the city centres of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool people voted marginally to Remain, in the North West overall it was 54 per cent Leave and in both the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber it was 58. More locally, the Leave vote in places like Hartlepool, Burnley and the East Riding of Yorkshire reached nearly 70 per cent.

On the face of it, the vote to Leave was a demand to repatriate powers from the machinery of the European Union and restore a greater sense of national sovereignty, but there were clearly more pervasive factors at play. Some have shown that the Brexit vote can be explained by relative wealth and education but recent analysis shows that it would be wrong to overlook the geographical effects that overlay these social divides.

And social attitudes research shows that it is the same people who voted to leave who consistently state that they have lower levels of trust in politicians and in the political system as a whole. People in the North feel that government in all its forms is too detached from the lives of ordinary people and they are seeking change. The EU referendum tapped into a concern that ordinary people needed to ͚take back control͛ - no more so than in the North.

But the geographical dimensions of the Brexit vote aren’t the only indications of a resurgent North. Throughout 2016, Northern economic indicators have looked unexpectedly rosy. Jobs growth has consistently outpaced the national average, but even the detractors who dismiss such statistics as low wage, low quality jobs would do well to explain why the latest productivity stats show Northern regions growing faster than even London.

It is of course impossible to prove, but let’s not underestimate the effect of the Northern Powerhouse on these trends. Rhetoric it may well be, but if it translates into business confidence then that brings tangible effects. In the same way that a strong pound has privileged the City at the expense of UK manufacturing for so long, so a weakening pound might just sustain this Northern boost – not to mention the much-heralded place-based industrial strategy we are expecting from the new administration.

Few can predict the effects of Brexit and the threat of disrupted trade arrangements looms large over regions disproportionately dependent on EU trade, but at the start of a new year we should seize the moment created by a strong and confident North.

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In his brilliant compendium The North: (and almost everything in it) Paul Morley tries to capture the essence of what it is to be Northern. In a passage describing the many ‘norths within the north’ he writes the following:

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.

Despite the difficulties in ‘officially, formally achieving’ any sense of Northern autonomy we should not underestimate the value of our more ‘abstract independence of thought’ in a resurgent North. It is such free-thinking that risks voting to Leave. It is such zeal that is prepared to give Westminster the occasional slap and never-mind-the-consequences. But Northerners are also past-masters at not letting a good crisis go to waste.

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Galvanised by 2016, the North now needs to set out its own bold, brazen, even romantic, vision for the future. Of what might this consist? Here are four ideas designed to raise our sights and blow away any lingering Brexit blues.

First, why don’t we commit to supplying the whole of England with entirely renewable energy? Ensuring the nation’s energy security forever and championing the decarbonisation decade. The North of England was always the nation’s literal powerhouse but as coal and gas become yesterday’s fuels, we are uniquely positioned to exploit the huge opportunities that lie in offshore wind and tidal power, as well as hydrogen heating systems linked to cutting edge carbon-capture and storage schemes. Along with world-leading expertise in energy efficiency, demand management and storage solutions there is no reason why the North shouldn’t lead the way in powering our green economy.

Second, look beyond all the politics of trans-pennine rail electrification, let’s build the world’s first hyperloop system. A vacuum-powered, superfast, underground transport system connecting Liverpool to Hull and Newcastle in less than an hour, Manchester to Leeds in around 15 minutes. The technology is all there and is being piloted in California – why can’t we make the North of England the first place on earth to have a fully commercialised and operational system? There will of course be the doubters – it will never work, people won’t want to use it – but that’s exactly what they told Mr Stephenson when he proposed building the world’s first inter-city railway between Manchester and Liverpool.

Thirdly, and perhaps most pressingly, let’s have more vision for our social infrastructure. With the very youngest children in the North of England, irrespective of their social class, starting school so far behind their contemporaries anywhere in Europe, we need an Early Years Revolution across the North. Couldn’t we raise up an early years champion on every street in every neighbourhood? A new home guard who are looking out for struggling parents, who are demanding their childcare rights, who are re-opening and running children’s centres in every neighbourhood. And forget a national children’s tsar – we need children’s tsars in every village, town and city across the North - because it’s in everybody’s interest that our children get the very best start in life and we must stop turning a blind eye to the fact that they are currently getting the very worst.

And finally, if we really want to take back control, let’s establish a People’s Assembly for the North. Every year, 200 people, chosen by lot from existing lists for jury service, could come together for a week-long deliberation about policies and priorities for our common life in the North. They could bring ideas, set agendas and pass judgement on national, regional and local government agendas. Supported by on-going review panels and learning from similar initiatives overseas, this could give the North of England a new means of generating a collective voice while continuing to celebrate its local diversity.

Four ideas needing further framing. Four ideas awaiting some detail. Four ideas to stimulate debate. Four ideas that might once again put Northern voices at the front of the queue in shaping the future.

But these are just some of my own. Today we are calling on everybody who wants to seize the moment, anybody who believes in leading rather than pleading, to set out their own bold and brazen visions of the future of the North of England. If 2016 was the year we found our voice, let’s make 2017 the year we had something to shout about.


The public are invited to send in their radical ideas to improve the North's economy by 26 January via [email protected]