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Coffee House

Britain must realise George Osborne’s vision of a northern powerhouse

24 June 2014

11:31 AM

24 June 2014

11:31 AM

If you walk around our great northern cities, you’ll see stunning examples of civic pride. Albert Square in Manchester and Leeds Town Hall reflect resurgent local confidence. Old narratives of northern decline are out of date. When Guardian writer Andy Beckett launched a hatchet job on the north-east a few weeks ago, claiming that the region was the ‘next Detroit’, the response was visceral and immediate. Beckett managed to write an entire article about the north-east without mentioning Nissan – the most productive car plant in Europe.

The North is home to new tech hubs, advanced manufacturing, superb universities and world-leading culture, from sport to music to art. The north-east was the fastest growing economic region in the Lloyds index last month. People are returning to the job market in the north-east and north-west at the fastest rate nationwide. City centres once scarred by industrial decline are now vibrant and attractive, driven by the enterprise of the re-emerging private sector.

But it would be foolish to think that there isn’t much more to do. There are still substantial pockets of deprivation within a stone’s throw of the transformed cities. Many of the old coalfield villages, built with one purpose in mind, remain in the doldrums. And a ‘brain drain’ sucks talented young people southwards.

We northerners are right to feel pride in the identities and heritage of our towns and cities. It was here that the industrial revolution was forged with local coal, iron, labour and ingenuity, which propelled Britain to global pre-eminence. The North deserves an economic future to match its glorious past. To realise this ambition, we need to be bold and ingenious once more.

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The North needs to think globally – and see itself in a global context as well as a national one. The populations of the individual northern cities are comparatively small. London, the great global city of the moment, has a population of over 8 million. Greater Manchester, the biggest conurbation in the North, has just 2.6 million. There are, however, 10 million people, including 2 million graduates, living within 40 miles of Manchester (that’s a bigger population than Tokyo, New York or London): showing the dramatic potential if northern cities work together more effectively.

Yet anyone who’s travelled between northern cities will know that the transport links are simply not good enough, which impedes connectivity and co-operation. The train that crawls between Newcastle and Manchester in pretty much the same time as it takes to travel between Newcastle and London is symbolic of this problem. As is the fact that it takes twice as long to travel between Leeds and Manchester as it does between London and Reading, even though the distance between the cities is pretty much equal.

This is why the announcement by the chancellor, George Osborne, of substantial investment in high-speed rail and improved road infrastructure between northern towns and cities is so important. And it’s little surprise that the plan has been praised across the political spectrum, including by Labour’s Mayor of Liverpool.

The provision of infrastructure, both digital and physical, is something that central government should do in order to help the North grow and prosper. But in other areas, Whitehall should back away and let northern cities plot their own routes to greater prosperity. Civic leadership (the need for a single figure with real clout to be a big voice for the city) is critical to success. At present, northern cities don’t have the political power to match their economic potential. That must change. Each city should have a directly elected mayor with the power to sweep away obstacles to growth and speak with real authority. These big figures should represent their cities on the global stage, because the purpose of co-operation is to enable the North to compete globally.

For years, Labour has taken the North for granted, thinking that structures like RDAs can make up for the lack of strong civic leadership and investment in infrastructure. The North has long needed a bold vision and big plans. The chancellor offered both yesterday. A north of connected cities, dynamic civic leaders, world-leading universities, pioneering businesses and millions of ambitious people, which will be a major player in the world economy for decades to come.

David Skelton tweets @djskelton.

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