Six years after George Osborne's vision was revealed, can Grant Shapps make Northern Powerhouse dream a reality?

Northern Powerhouse Minister Grant Shapps has promised “a dramatic step-up in Northern Powerhouse activity” amid accusations that progress on rebalancing the prospects of the North and the South has faltered.

Speaking ahead of the Great Northern Conference, to be held on Thursday Mr Shapps - who is also Transport Secretary - said “there has never been a greater need to deliver real change in every part of the North”.

And he said levelling up must be about more than just transport if success is to be achieved.

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But it comes against a backdrop of leading experts casting doubt on how much of the Northern Powerhouse ambition has been achieved.

George Osborne, chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, and Northern Powerhouse Minister Grant Shapps. Photo: JPI Media/PA
George Osborne, chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, and Northern Powerhouse Minister Grant Shapps. Photo: JPI Media/PA

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, warned: "This Government has promised real change to voters in the North. It would be a huge mistake to break that promise, and replace a coherent plan to close the North – South demand with just soundbites and promises which aren’t properly delivered."

While Ryan Swift, a University of Leeds PhD researcher into the politics of the North, added: “The Northern Powerhouse agenda has had some success as a branding exercise. It has drawn attention to the region and served as a useful vehicle for organisations and politicians to coalesce around to champion the case of the North at the national level.

“It’s impact in terms of actually delivering significant government investment and policy change for the betterment of the region has been less notable. The same issues that were problematic for the North when the Northern Powerhouse was launched over six years ago – poor transport, underinvestment, a lack of a say in decision-making – persist.”

Fiona Spellman, chief executive of Leeds-based education charity Shine said there was a consistent issue with northern schools being marked more harshly than those in the South which still remained.

She said: “Covid-19 has deepened the divide that has long existed between children from poorer backgrounds and their wealthier peers.

“With limited access to digital devices, a broadband connection, or even a quiet space in which to work, remote learning has hit the most disadvantaged children hardest.

“As a result, the attainment gap that had stopped closing even before lockdown, is set to widen yet further.”

While Dr Séamus O’Neill, chief executive at the Northern Health Science Alliance, said: “The vision of a Northern Powerhouse is certainly not yet a reality. Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on northern communities, and it has exposed the deep-rooted health inequalities between the North and the South of the country.

“Brexit will further stress-test the North’s economy which, from a less resilient starting point than the South, has already been hit hard.

“This is close to a perfect storm and without significant and sustained investment, the health and economic inequalities will grow wider and have a devastating long-term impact on the North.”

And Tom Lees, director of the centre-right Northern Policy Foundation think tank, added: “Sadly a lot of the talk about creating a Northern Powerhouse over the last number of years has been just that - talk.

“The UK seems to be highly accomplished at endlessly discussing a topic and much poorer at taking the radical, bold and transformational decisions that are needed to result in meaningful change.

“Since the Northern Powerhouse concept was created the economic gap between London and the North has widened.”

He said: “We need to move the top civil service brass and departments from London, see significant increases in R&D spending, focus more on white working-class kids in school who perform worse than any other group and create internationally competitive freeports to drive investment and business growth.”

But architect of the Northern Powerhouse and former Chancellor George Osborne said the Northern Powerhouse was “much more than a slogan”.

Mr Osborne said: “In the six or seven years, since we’ve been working on the idea of the Northern Powerhouse, it has grown way beyond my wildest imagination.

“It’s obviously a slogan that has stuck and that’s great, but it’s so much more than a slogan.”

He said: “At the heart of the Northern Powerhouse is a serious economic theory, and the theory is that individually, the towns and cities and different counties of the North are great, they’ve got incredible histories they’ve got great strengths, but individually, they’re not big enough to make a big punch on the world stage and the global economy.”

He said by uniting the North a economic front was created to rival the South, or even areas of the United States or Tokyo.

And he added: “I wanted it to be much more than just a Government initiative that comes and goes with whoever’s the Chancellor or the Prime Minister of the day, I wanted it to be owned in the North and developed in the North. And that is what has happened.”

Sarah Longlands, director of the IPPR North think tank, said some progress had been made.

She said: “Over the last half decade we’ve seen some steps in the right direction including the election of five Metro Mayors, the creation of Transport for the North which has brought forward a £70bn investment plan, the North’s productivity gap with the rest of the country narrowed slightly, and there’s been plenty of positive collaboration.”

But she added: “What Covid-19 has shown is that the North’s recovery cannot be dictated from Whitehall.

“Our local leaders need to have sufficient resources and powers to be able to rebuild jobs, livelihoods and tackle long term priorities such as rising child poverty.

“That’s why we need Government to commit to a meaningful and comprehensive approach to devolution. Only when we do this, will we be on the path to building a fairer, stronger economy for the whole of the UK.”

Progress on the digital front has also been made but there are key areas where Yorkshire lags behind.

Tom Forth, head of data at ODI Leeds, which is part of the Open Data Institute, said: “The last six years have seen Yorkshire and the rest of North England’s strong position within Europe on digital connectivity strengthen further.

“Government schemes have helped gaps in mobile phone coverage come down, and pushed speeds on both mobile and fixed broadband higher. Of course that will be little consolation to the one in twenty Yorkshire households without a fast broadband connection, or the worryingly high number of young people reliant on internet connections to study and socialise whose families struggle to afford one.

“Less promising for closing the North/South divide is the government’s record on culture and creative industries. What rebalancing of cultural spending by national bodies has occurred has been more than offset by the ongoing cuts to local government, whose funding and services support culture, arts, and creative industries.”

Quality housing is also an issue, with Nigel Wilson, chair of Homes for the North - an alliance of 17 housing associations - saying: “The North can lead the way.”

Mr Wilson said: “Housing policy has an important role in determining whether the national recovery levels-up or doubles-down on inequality based solely on where you live in the country.

“The Government has a chance to step-up to level-up the North. Only with more quality homes can we achieve transformational growth.

“The North needs up to 65,000 new homes every year to achieve transformational growth ambitions.

“But we face challenges that hamper this growth. There is a lack of a coherent vision, as well as policies which inhibit housing land supply and investment. In turn, this reinforces inequalities between the North and the rest of the country.

“A clear strategy needs to be established for the North, which articulates the role of housing in supporting the Government’s levelling up agenda.

“The Government must create a new Levelling Up Housing Infrastructure Fund, backed by reform to the Treasury’s Green Book, which would boost supply and accelerate the delivery of homes. Furthermore, the planning system should encourage ambition through a proposed new standard methodology with housebuilding targets that reflect regional growth ambitions that are not set at the detriment of the North.”

And Brian Robson, executive director for policy and public affairs at the Northern Housing Consortium membership body, welcomed some changes made by the Government in recent months.

He said: “Over the last 12 months, the Government has confirmed funding for new affordable homes and for housing on brownfield sites, both of which are welcome and will go some way to delivering more and better homes in the North.

“However, much of the North is still locked out of the lion’s share of key multi-billion pound housing infrastructure funds; and too many Northerners have spent lockdown in poor quality housing.

“Rishi Sunak must deliver a level playing field on housing funding; and make further progress on upgrading our existing homes – by confirming the £3.8bn decarbonisation funds promised in the Conservative manifesto.”

Meanwhile Barry White, chief executive at Transport for the North, said the North has never been higher on the political agenda, but investment now needs to follow the warm words.

Mr White said: “The Prime Minister and his Government have stated their commitment to ‘levelling up’ the North on many occasions in recent months. Boris Johnson’s “build, build, build” speech; repeated support for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail; setting out the Integrated Rail Plan; and the creation of the Northern Transport Acceleration Council are all evidence that the Government is paying attention to the needs of our region’s people and businesses.

“But now is the time for action; to invest in the North; to help our economy to recover and to underpin future growth; to fund vital transport projects that will benefit passengers and businesses; and to rebalance the decades of underinvestment that have held us back.”

He said: “We’ve made our case incredibly clear – invest in us now to secure our future.”

Mr Shapps said: “Since the Northern Powerhouse was first announced, the Government has worked relentlessly to make this vision a reality, investing billions in infrastructure and devolving powers to take decision-making out of Westminster and into the regions themselves.

“My department has been at the heart of this effort.”

But he added: “Progress must come in every area, not just transport. I am determined to see change and dedicated to ensuring every department is continuously delivering for the Northern Powerhouse.

“Just last week, the Government nominated 10 businesses as Northern Powerhouse investment champions, tasked with attracting investors to the North to boost job opportunities and prosperity.”

However Labour’s shadow Transport Secretary and Northern Powerhouse Minister Jim McMahon said: “It takes more than just one off capital spending but day to day revenue spending too to ensure that the whole country receives equal treatment.

“From big infrastructure projects to small local schemes, Tory ministers have failed to follow through on commitments they’ve made to held back areas.

“In the North we’ve still got pacer trains and we’ve not seen the promised electrification of rail routes.”

He added: “What’s clear is the UK is a deeply economically divided country. The Government’s had ten years but the situation has worsened. We need a credible plan to rebalance Britain, one where spending is rooted in communities, public services are invested in and anyone, no matter where they grew up, can reach their full potential.”

And TUC Regional Secretary for Yorkshire and the Humber Bill Adams said: “Good jobs have got to be at the heart of any agenda for a Northern Powerhouse.

“Jobs in a reborn manufacturing sector. Jobs in the green tech we need to safeguard our future. Jobs in automotive and aerospace, that are high-skilled, need protecting. Jobs in hospitality and retail which are valued and paid fairly.

“Regional leaders currently lack the powers, funding and freedom from Whitehall to develop industrial strategies that support good, high quality jobs, and a sustainable, green recovery.”

But Mr Shapps said: “Despite the impact of Covid-19, we’ve continued to make progress and over the next few months, readers will see a dramatic step-up in Northern Powerhouse activity.

“This Government has a clear vision to build back better and deliver a bright future, boasting state-of-the-art infrastructure and a wealth of economic opportunities. The Northern Powerhouse is at the forefront of this vision and I look forward to making that case at next week’s conference.”