While the project is undeniably a bold vision, it could go much further to embrace the range of communities across the region. It has focused purely on the big cities – like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Hull and Sheffield – but ignored the smaller towns and rural communities who form the backbone of our economy, but have been left behind.
Businesses and business support will always be attracted to big cities – the BBC, for example, had already committed its investment to Greater Manchester years before the Northern Powerhouse project emerged – but small towns are often ignored.
However, in lieu of government policy to help them thrive, what we are seeing is small businesses mobilising and transforming their communities themselves – thanks to both community-focused grassroots initiatives and innovative and passionate entrepreneurs who are tapped into their communities’ needs.
Take Halifax for example, where local small businesses have a new, collaborative workspace to call home. Croft Myl, a former textile factory, was regenerated by Vicky and Brian Nolan to relieve their frustration about not being able to find quality office space in the town.
They designed the office space – complete with a rooftop garden and slide, with local small businesses in mind – and it is now the beating heart of Halifax’s start-up and small business community.
Croft Myl embodies the regeneration story we are seeing across the North, which draws on industrial heritage, but brings it into the 21st century.
In North Lincolnshire, Grimsby is a great example of a town in the midst of regeneration after the death of the fishing industry, youth unemployment and a lack of transport infrastructure. The town has emerged as a hotbed of digital enterprise and has a thriving coastal economy. This has been driven not by Government initiatives, but by the dedication and passion of local business support organisations such as E-Factor.
Fortis Therapy and Training is one of a number of small businesses in Grimsby which received support from E-Factor and they are now doing amazing work for the community. Suffering with PTSD and unhappy with Grimsby’s mental health provision, Alexis Powell-Howard launched Fortis in 2012 and is now leading the charge for better mental health services in her community, and across the UK.
Destinations for collaboration, socialising and inclusion are essential to addressing needs of their local communities and solving the problems their towns face. Riverhead Coffee, the only independent coffee shop in Grimsby – the plethora of which in big cities is hugely taken for granted – was set up to bring local independent businesses in Grimsby together, in order to provide more jobs for local people and solve problems facing the town.
In North Yorkshire, Skipton’s Kibble Bakery is mirroring what Riverhead is doing. Mother and daughter duo, Jade Banham and Jayne Walker, are deeply committed to supporting local suppliers, and being a destination for everyone in the town, including their dogs!
What all these small businesses have in common is a deep-rooted understanding of their communities, and so they cater to them in a way that the big corporation projects that have formed the basis of the Northern Powerhouse so far, have not.
According to peak b’s Small Business Community Impact report released earlier this year, 83 per cent of small businesses actively get involved in community organisations – an overwhelming majority. They see a problem, and they find creative ideas to solve it. Results are seen first-hand and fast – and when initiatives don’t work they can change tack quickly and effectively.
It would be a huge error for the Northern Powerhouse to continue focusing on big cities and not the small businesses who are regenerating so many pockets of the North. Innovation, growth, and passionate business-owners are not reserved to metropolitan areas. The Northern Powerhouse ambition should encompass all of its thriving hotspots, and contribute to the much-needed effort of regenerating towns that have been left behind.
Michelle Ovens MBE is founder of small business campaigning firm peak b, and director of Small Business Saturday.