By Hugo Greenhalgh on 3 Jun 2015
“Northern Powerhouse” isn’t just a Mancunian matter
“To bring different parts of our country together, my government will work to bring about a balanced economic recovery. Legislation will be introduced to provide for the devolution of powers to cities with elected metro mayors, helping to build a northern powerhouse.” – The Queen’s Speech, 27 May 2015.
The Queen’s Speech last week reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to creating a “northern powerhouse”. This term was first used by George Osborne in a speech in June 2014 and denotes the urban agglomeration of England’s Northern cities into a collective force, capable of rivaling the economic power of London. At the centre of these plans is the High Speed 3 (HS3) rail network, connecting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Hull and Newcastle.
While HS3 is unlikely to become a reality until the 2020s, a number of policies generally indicate that Westminster views Manchester as the flag-bearer for the rest of ‘the North’. It is already poised to take control of a devolved health and social care budget worth £6bn and will be the blueprint for other cities in Osborne’s ‘metro mayors’ proposals. Today, a £1 billion programme to transform Manchester Airport was unveiled, highlighting the global outlook of England’s de facto northern ‘capital’.
Policymakers would be advised to look beyond Manchester to see the North of England’s full potential, however. The latest report by the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) maps the ‘innovation geography’ of the UK and produced some surprising results. In a league table of 45 economic regions, Tees Valley came 7th – the most innovative area in the North – while Liverpool was ranked 10th, well above Greater Manchester in 20th. Meanwhile, London was ranked 25th.
The report came as music to the ears of Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton, whose constituency of Stockton South lies in the heart of the Tees Valley. Commenting on the results he said, “Teesside is leading the way…we are securing our place at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse economy.” And Liverpool’s strong performance relative to Manchester provoked a gleeful response from the Merseyside media.
While Teesside and Merseyside are separated by nearly 150 miles of motorway, their differences are more than just geographic. Tees counts the chemical, manufacturing and steel industries as its key sectors, while Liverpool has prioritised science, tourism and the development of its ‘superport’. The former is a conurbation of key regional towns and resourceful business parks, while the latter is an iconic post-industrial city whose fortunes often seem to have been the inverse of rival Manchester’s in recent decades.
There is a tendency to treat the North as a single entity, when in fact it is a wealth of different identities that make a valuable contribution to the cultural and industrial makeup of the UK. In putting Manchester on a pedestal, it is easy to overlook the variety and success of northern businesses elsewhere. As “Northern Powerhouse” continues to be used as a political buzzword, it’s important to remember that there is more to the geographic region than one city. As the ERC’s report highlights, there are several areas performing just as well as Manchester, if not better.
As such, the ERC research is a valuable contribution to the debate and reminds policymakers that major initiatives need to be grounded in evidence and fact, rather than just assumptions – especially on such crucial issues as how to stimulate economic growth.
The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will need to draw on the strengths of all of its constituent parts – not just Manchester – if it is to become a reality.