THE triggering of Article 50, signalling the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the European Union, marks a historic juncture that is unprecedented in recent years.
No doubt the following months will be dominated by the details of negotiations and what will, or will not, be possible in a post-Brexit world.
But beyond the minutiae of trade deals and migration controls, the ongoing debates around Brexit represent an extraordinary opportunity to re-assess and redefine our place in the world, and the type of society that we want to be.
No more so than in the North of England. People in the North, including in Yorkshire and Humber where the vote to leave was 58 per cent, were those who shouted loudest at the referendum. And as other parts of the North see candidates for metro mayors put forward bold new visions for their city regions, and discussions continue across Yorkshire regarding the right scale of governance for devolution, this is undoubtedly the year that the North of England asks itself: what kind of Powerhouse do we want to be?
This kind of wide-ranging debate has so far been lacking. Just as the campaign to remain in the EU was criticised for its unrelenting repetition of a small set of economic arguments, conversations about the Northern Powerhouse have been constrained by a narrow focus on a small range of economic levers, notably transport investment, driven by the interests of a select group of business leaders and senior local and national politicians.
As IPPR North has consistently argued, the North is, of course, in need of real and sustained investment in its transport network. But, vital as transport connections are, they won’t do much on their own to tackle some of the more ingrained economic, social and democratic issues that prompted people to vote to ‘take back control’ in June 2016. Instead, we need to widen the conversation.
Firstly, we need to be more inclusive. There is real energy and enthusiasm behind the idea of the Northern Powerhouse – but if it is to thrive it must be about much more than a small group of white men holding meetings behind closed doors. The significant protests over the lack of female speakers at a recent conference showed that there is real appetite for a truly Northern Powerhouse: not as some Whitehall policy, but as a wholescale reinvention of the North, by the North and for the North.
Secondly, we also need to consider how we can address the democratic deficit that affects the North as much, if not more than, the rest of England. Metro mayors and combined authorities offer a chance to do politics differently, but they will make little difference unless we allow people from all walks of life to take back control of decisions being made about their lives and the communities around them. If decisions are to be made across the whole of the North, we need to ensure that the people of the North have a say. Our recent report sets out some radical ideas for how we might make this happen at a pan-Northern level.
Thirdly, we need to think about how to make the most of all the North’s assets, not just its economic potential. Historically, of course, the North has built its success not just upon the strength of its industries and the reach of its railways, but upon the richness and vibrancy of the relationships between individuals, communities and organisations – which together constitute civil society in its many forms.
Civil society is a key part of the Northern Powerhouse. Estimates from the first-ever large-scale survey of the voluntary sector in the North, published by IPPR North in partnership with Durham University, suggest that community and voluntary organisations directly contribute over £2bn to the Yorkshire economy through their employees and volunteers, and roughly £5.5bn to the Northern Powerhouse as a whole – putting the sector on a par with other major contributors such as the finance and insurance industry (£7.3bn across the North). But this ballpark figure does not include the wider contribution of civil society more generally through the work done by organisations and individuals to tackle social need. Remove this and the Powerhouse crumbles.
IPPR North will be at the forefront of efforts to build an inclusive Northern Powerhouse. What started as a Whitehall buzzword has now become something with far greater momentum and energy than government can ever claim to own. To thrive in a post-Brexit world, we must look to all of the people of the North to build a truly Northern Powerhouse.
Jack Hunter is a research fellow at IPPR North, the dedicated think-tank for the North of England.