In his Autumn Statement to the House of Commons, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (UK Finance Minister for the benefit of my international readers) made several references to supporting the development of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’. For people who aren’t familiar with the concept, this phrase is being used to refer to the harnessing of all of the potential of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield through investment in infrastructure and connecting those cities to maximise the benefits. Having spent time working in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield (sorry Liverpool, it wasn’t personal) I’m fascinated by this idea and what it means for the future of work. I also spent 10 years working in Central London so can’t help but compare what I imagine the Powerhouse could become with the ‘London experience’.
It’s probably worth saying early on that I know there are two main reasons for the Chancellor promoting the Powerhouse concept. The first is about creating growth and increased tax receipts to close the fiscal gap. The argument that cities rather than regions drive growth is one that we understand, and it seems to make more sense to maximise the value from already productive hubs than to try and build new ones. The second is that the Chancellor needs to win votes in the North to support the chances of a Conservative victory, or at least a role in a coalition, and this approach potentially appeals to large numbers of people. Nevertheless, as an idea it is fascinating and could potentially redefine how we work across the UK, how an exodus from London could influence the Northern Character of the cities involved, and vice versa.
In terms of connectivity, increasing the capacity and price competitiveness of public transport links between the cities will lead to a larger job market and more opportunities. If you live in Sheffield, and want to work in Leeds or Manchester, having a modern, affordable transport system will make that possible. Anybody who has used the 40 year old “chug chug” trains that pootle around the North West will be in no doubt as to the need for reform in this area. It is also the case that in many of the industries that the Chancellor is keen to promote, time spent on trains is increasingly becoming productive time. My own 30 minute train journey is spent dealing with emails on my 3G connected iPad, writing reports on my wireless laptop, or else reading reports without the distractions of office life. Now is the right time to focus on how the design of the Powerhouse (including rail franchises and infrastructure) can build on that development in a changed World where cost is more important than time.
Although the Chancellor is keen to promote the growth of these called ‘knowledge industries’, the North also has a world famous history of making things. Whilst we wouldn’t expect the Powerhouse to take on China when it comes to the production of low cost mass produced goods (no offence China, I know there is lots of high end manufacturing there too), it could easily be a leader in creative goods including crafts. Building on the strong heritage that the Northern cities have in this respect there is an enormous opportunity to redefine the North as the centre of sophisticated, creative and innovative design and manufacturing. With HS2 giving us access to the South and the new deep dock at Liverpool giving us easier access to the USA export margins become much more attractive.
Part of the heritage that I have alluded to in the North is architectural but the physical environment is at once a strength and weakness for the Powerhouse. It is genuinely inspiring to walk through these Northern cities and see the fantastic craftsmanship that is still on display in the stone and brickwork of our great buildings. To see and to learn about these buildings and their histories gives us the confidence that we are not starting from scratch but, to quote Newton, are “standing on the shoulders of giants”. It is also true though that the harsh realities of manufacturing in the North of England in the 1970s and 1980s have left us with eyesores. For every great civic building there is a disused factory or ruined warehouse. To win the confidence of those who we need to move to and invest in the Powerhouse this needs to be recognised and addressed. We need to take pride in the Powerhouse and feel enthused – not embarrassed – by it.
To really fire up the boiler of the Powerhouse we also need more evidence that the key players who have always been London based will come and join us. The BBC moving to Salford has been a huge step forward in this regard and one that Central Government could learn from. With the exception of some departmental outposts, the Civil Service is still heavily based in the South East. Having worked in Government departments, including in the private offices of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries, I can confidently say that the current argument of officials needing to all be near ministers in London is bunkum. First of all, Ministers could probably benefit from spending much more time in cities other than London. Secondly, the number of officials who actually see Ministers face to face or attend meetings in Parliament is tiny. When London is less than two hours from Manchester on the train, a Civil Service majority based in London becomes an anachronism that we can no longer afford.
Let’s hope that the Chancellor’s words are more than just posturing and that – regardless of the result at the next election – a focus on supporting the development of a Northern Powerhouse remains. I would hate to think that when the time comes my sons feel they need to move to London to build a career for themselves. Instead, I look forward to a day when I explain the North South divide to them as something I remember rather than something they need to understand.