Coffee House

Britain must realise George Osborne’s vision of a northern powerhouse

24 June 2014

If you walk around our great northern cities, you’ll see stunning examples of civic pride. Albert Square in Manchester and Leeds Town Hall reflect resurgent local confidence. Old narratives of northern decline are out of date. When Guardian writer Andy Beckett launched a hatchet job on the north-east a few weeks ago, claiming that the region was the ‘next Detroit’, the response was visceral and immediate. Beckett managed to write an entire article about the north-east without mentioning Nissan – the most productive car plant in Europe.

The North is home to new tech hubs, advanced manufacturing, superb universities and world-leading culture, from sport to music to art. The north-east was the fastest growing economic region in the Lloyds index last month. People are returning to the job market in the north-east and north-west at the fastest rate nationwide. City centres once scarred by industrial decline are now vibrant and attractive, driven by the enterprise of the re-emerging private sector.

But it would be foolish to think that there isn’t much more to do. There are still substantial pockets of deprivation within a stone’s throw of the transformed cities. Many of the old coalfield villages, built with one purpose in mind, remain in the doldrums. And a ‘brain drain’ sucks talented young people southwards.

We northerners are right to feel pride in the identities and heritage of our towns and cities. It was here that the industrial revolution was forged with local coal, iron, labour and ingenuity, which propelled Britain to global pre-eminence. The North deserves an economic future to match its glorious past. To realise this ambition, we need to be bold and ingenious once more.


The North needs to think globally – and see itself in a global context as well as a national one. The populations of the individual northern cities are comparatively small. London, the great global city of the moment, has a population of over 8 million. Greater Manchester, the biggest conurbation in the North, has just 2.6 million. There are, however, 10 million people, including 2 million graduates, living within 40 miles of Manchester (that’s a bigger population than Tokyo, New York or London): showing the dramatic potential if northern cities work together more effectively.

Yet anyone who’s travelled between northern cities will know that the transport links are simply not good enough, which impedes connectivity and co-operation. The train that crawls between Newcastle and Manchester in pretty much the same time as it takes to travel between Newcastle and London is symbolic of this problem. As is the fact that it takes twice as long to travel between Leeds and Manchester as it does between London and Reading, even though the distance between the cities is pretty much equal.

This is why the announcement by the chancellor, George Osborne, of substantial investment in high-speed rail and improved road infrastructure between northern towns and cities is so important. And it’s little surprise that the plan has been praised across the political spectrum, including by Labour’s Mayor of Liverpool.

The provision of infrastructure, both digital and physical, is something that central government should do in order to help the North grow and prosper. But in other areas, Whitehall should back away and let northern cities plot their own routes to greater prosperity. Civic leadership (the need for a single figure with real clout to be a big voice for the city) is critical to success. At present, northern cities don’t have the political power to match their economic potential. That must change. Each city should have a directly elected mayor with the power to sweep away obstacles to growth and speak with real authority. These big figures should represent their cities on the global stage, because the purpose of co-operation is to enable the North to compete globally.

For years, Labour has taken the North for granted, thinking that structures like RDAs can make up for the lack of strong civic leadership and investment in infrastructure. The North has long needed a bold vision and big plans. The chancellor offered both yesterday. A north of connected cities, dynamic civic leaders, world-leading universities, pioneering businesses and millions of ambitious people, which will be a major player in the world economy for decades to come.

David Skelton tweets @djskelton.

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • swatnan

    The way things are going the Northern Powerhouse could welkl be in Edinburgh.
    Good luck to the YES Campaign.

  • itdoesntaddup

    Powerhouse? Powered by windmills?

    I think not. On the other hand, if we get on a develop the Bowland shale maybe the North could indeed become a powerhouse, attracting industry back just as the US has done and improving the infrastructure that supports it.

    The original economic wealth of the North came from exploiting its natural advantages – ports that traded worldwide, cheap energy, a supply chain of intermeshing industries – steel, coal, textiles, design skills, etc. It is quite pointless to attempt to set it up as a competitor to London to do what London does in City offices.

    • global city

      Like with all things though, all profits and all tax will immediately be sucked out of the area… then a percentage of what’s left by way of wages, rates, etc, will also go after the first tranche as shops deposit takings and pay tax.

      The fundamental problem that needs to be addressed is enabling money generated to be circulated round the North again and again…. as happens in the SE. Ireland managed to do this, so why not the UK?

  • Mark McIntyre

    NO2 HS2 + NO2 HS3 – power to the house !

    • itdoesntaddup



  • global city

    What is a city?

    Everyone should consider that point. It is not as clear-cut as many may think… and it is why we have spent so much money making our cities here worse and worse with every ‘investment’.

    What is the dynamic that makes good cities wealth creators that is missing from those cities that an only decay? If our leaders crack that single point then regeneration schemes may actually begin to work.

  • In2minds

    “If you walk around our great northern cities, you’ll see stunning
    examples of civic pride” –

    All built BEFORE the age of centralist planning. Stop playing with train
    sets it does not help.

  • Jez

    It is a fantastic place, i agree.

    We even have our very own Pakistan!

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    oh isn’t it lovely — Manchester/Leeds isn’t even fully electrified yet, yet those who oppose change fall over their own feet in this blog praising years of inaction and announcements that will surely only become reality in the late 2030s.

  • Fasdunkle

    “it takes twice as long to travel between Leeds and Manchester as it does between London and Reading”

    TBF, the Pennines are in the way

    • In2minds

      How jealous this make Reading residents!

      • Fasdunkle

        Yes, they have Slough in the way

    • global city

      No doubt somebody in Whitehall, looking at a flat map will have suggested lots of housing in that ‘gap’ between Manchester and Leeds!

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    Well, stand up all those who can prove they have revitalised an area on a cost-effective basis. Without penalising another.

    And while you are there, give examples of how London, or the SE, or whatever, became prosperous on account of a load of folks all working to that end. Things don’t work like that. A lot of people acting in their own interest have chosen those areas based on their own priorities. Not to make London rich but to make themselves rich. Some of this is geography. Some is chance. None of it is because of some train line or other political initiative except that governments ought to make the climate favourable for business and get out of the bloody way. Not try to pick winners or shore up losers.

  • telemachus

    And the English Parliament at Salford Quays

    • ButcombeMan

      In the abandoned BBC building, abandoned when most of the BBC is privatised.

  • Martin Adamson

    “A north of connected cities, dynamic civic leaders, world-leading
    universities, pioneering businesses and millions of ambitious people,
    which will be a major player in the world economy for decades to come.”

    And you are going to achieve all that by cutting 20 minutes off the journey time between Manchester and Leeds and electing a rag tag and bobtail crowd of third-rate Labour hacks, islamist fantatics, and feminist harridans as mayors, are you?

    • Holly

      Just depends on who WE vote for I suppose.
      Or vote out, as the case may be.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here