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Northern powerhouse creator - George Osborne

Northern powerhouse: from rhetoric to reality

Last week’s Convention of the North is a good start for making the northern powerhouse a reality – but it is only the first step, writes Rosie Corrigan

Last Thursday’s convention in Newcastle was a significant moment in the national conversation about devolution and the economy of the north – and it was a long time coming. Back in 2012, the northern economic futures commission led by  the Institute for Public Policy Research for the north, proposed an annual northern leadership convention to “prioritise and build support around solutions to shared challenges and opportunities”. It recommended that the convention be “action-oriented, focusing on developing strategies, action plans and milestones to address the shared priorities identified during the convention”.

However, while devolution in the north has progressed over the last six years, a united northern voice has been lacking. Northern leaders agree on a great deal, but no one leader or mayor is able to speak up on behalf of the whole of the region, as is the case in Scotland, Wales and London. Take Brexit for example, the single biggest challenge facing the UK in a generation: Scotland, Wales, London and even the Cayman Islands have been afforded a formal seat at the table, but the north has not.   

There was clear consensus from northern leaders at the convention that “enough is enough”. The determined and united voice of civic, business and political leaders has the potential to be a powerful asset, one which refuses to be excluded by Whitehall any longer on matters which affect northerners.

This moment is also an opportunity for leaders from across the north to cooperate on a non-partisan basis, planning and working together with a view to build a strong and inclusive region which works for the diversity of northern people and places. If they can achieve this, then perhaps they could begin to transform the rhetoric of the northern powerhouse into something real, tangible and purposeful.

In fact, coordinating on pan-northern matters is essential to unlocking some of our considerable untapped potential. If we seek to understand the value of, and harness the opportunities presented to us by our natural assets, the things that the north is made of, then we can build a better environment. And if we coordinate to create skills systems which respond to the needs of local businesses, then we can boost productivity and the wellbeing of people. Many northern businesses have supply chains that extend across the region and industrial strategy could be coordinated at this tier. We need a strategy, a great north plan,to establish an ambitious, long-term vision for the north that we want to build.

Of course, in order to truly harness our potential, we need to see further devolution of powers to northern communities and institutions. Take transport for example. Over the last year, transport spending in London increased by 11.4 per cent, whilst it fell in the north by 3.6 per cent. Northern people are feeling the effects of underinvestment. Transport for the north is doing the important work of creating a strategic transport plan, but without powers similar to those enjoyed by Transport for London, we will be unable to truly rebalance disparities such as these.

As the work of the convention progresses, northern leaders must ensure that they take people with them on this new journey. Failing to do so would risk repeating the mistakes of Westminster. As IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice argued recently, the way in which our economy operates actively closes down people’s ability to feel part of the decision making process. This needs to change. The convention provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the north to take the lead on a new era for inclusive citizen participation which amplifies the voices of towns and rural areas, of women, of people from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds – involving citizens in the democratic process.

This inaugural Convention of the North is to be welcomed. It has started with great ambition, optimism and a determination to build a better, more democratic region. If followed through, it could mark a turning point in the north of England’s democratic fortunes.

Read next: Creating our new capitals of culture

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Rosie Corrigan is media and campaigns manager at IPPR North and Scotland. She tweets @Rosie_Corrigan

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