NO Prime Minister can afford to ignore the Northern Powerhouse agenda. When Theresa May tried, she was forced to U-turn. And rightly so.
The North of England makes up a vast proportion of the UK. Its economy is more than twice the size of Scotland’s and if it were a country it would be the ninth largest in the EU.
Its population is 15 million – about twice that of London. It has five major cities, 265 towns, 1,000 villages and smaller communities, eight major ports, 29 universities and four national parks.
The North generates a third of the UK’s renewable energy, it has clusters and specialisms in industries like high-tech manufacturing, digital health or fintech. This is an economy of the future.
It is remarkable that it took central government so long to realise how important the North’s economy is, and how much the North can do for the UK as a whole.
The Northern Powerhouse is often presented as a solution to the so-called ‘North-South divide’ but it is a vital agenda for the whole of the UK – not just the North of England.
Centralised government has caused problems for all regions: it has helped fuel the capital’s acute housing crisis, while starving the rest of the country of investment. This has left us with the worst of both worlds – for the capital and the country. It is needed now more than ever, as these inequalities reach breaking point.
Five years in and it enjoys the support of political and business leaders, and the 33 newspapers behind the Power Up The North campaign. The Northern Powerhouse agenda is here to stay. It must be a priority of a future Prime Minister.
But what can our prospective Prime Ministers offer the North to show they take this agenda seriously?
The North wants to take responsibility for its own affairs but it needs central government to invest in its economy and devolve power so it can do so.
That’s why the next Prime Minister needs to let the North itself lead the agenda into a new phase. Here’s five ways they can show they are serious:
Invest beyond the North’s core cities. The North’s major cities have been the focus of this agenda but there is far more to the North: the North’s economy will never function like London’s – no matter how good the transport links are.
It has a range of different economic assets which need to work together – sometimes in cities, sometimes in towns and rural areas; sometimes, in the case of its offshore wind farms, not even on the land.
Intervene in both high employment and high growth sectors. The North has world leading sectors and technologies and these should be supported. But the vast majority of its population work in ‘everyday economy’ sectors like retail, hospitality or social care. These people won’t benefit unless local, regional and industrial strategies prioritise more and better jobs in these sectors.
Invest in both infrastructure and people. The North needs better physical infrastructure – and it especially needs financial commitment Northern Powerhouse Rail. But there is a strong economic and social case for investment in health and education – not least in early years.
Deliver economic justice. The North does need to increase its productivity levels, but this is unlikely to improve the quality of life of those living in the North alone. Not only that but evidence shows that economic policy that prioritises more jobs, higher pay and the quality of work actually supports productivity too.
Devolve. The five metro mayors and Transport for the North are a great start, but this agenda needs to be led by the North. And to do that the Government must publish a framework for devolution that helps all places move forward and take charge of their own affairs and actively supports citizen participation in the democratic process.
The candidates to be our next Prime Minister are about to tour the country – and will need to visit the North in order to persuade their party members to vote for them.
Warm words about the Northern Powerhouse will not be enough. It is relatively easy for them to tell people what they want to hear and commit in principle to these things.
The North needs firm, tangible commitments. And most importantly, if they are elected to lead our country, the next Prime Minister must of course follow through on their promises.
The North remembers.
Luke Raikes is a senior research fellow at IPPR North.