Five years on from the Northern Powerhouse being first born as an idea, it is worth remembering it is a shared project of Labour-led northern city regions and a former Conservative chancellor.
It stemmed from ideas from Manchester-born economist, Lord Jim O’Neill, the then Manchester City Council chief Howard Bernstein and a number of other key thinkers committed to economic rebalancing through decentralisation and productivity-focused investment.
They wanted to drive our places and change people’s lives for the better – the historic mission of local government throughout our history.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) exists to defend and deliver the project to close the north/south divide for good. It consists of a board of business and civic leaders from both sides of the Pennines, along with Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice chancellor of the University of Manchester, and John Cridland, chair of Transport for the North, England’s first sub-national transport project.
We are fighting for a rebalancing of political decision-making. NPP sits alongside the annual convention of the north, bringing together the local government leaders and wider organisations
We want to make the north an economic and cultural powerhouse again, so that everyone who lives, works and raises their family here can have happy, fulfilled lives with economic security. We want to deal with the causes of economic failure, not just leave local government to manage the need of the socially excluded and economically disadvantaged, as well as those vulnerable for any reason at all.
Our report, Next Steps for the Northern Powerhouse, sets out bold and challenging proposals on education, devolution and transport, for how we can realise this ambition and deliver an economy that works for all.
This ambition will not be achieved without confronting the key areas in which the north lags behind the rest of the country. One of these is the low performance of a significant proportion of our children, most notably at age 16, compared to other areas. This results in a skills gap, which leaves employers without a suitable skilled workforce to address their modern needs.
Throughout the UK, there is a widely acknowledged disadvantage gap in educational achievement levels of children from poorer backgrounds compared to their peers. The previous coalition government introduced the pupil premium, but the disparities highlighted in the NPP report Educating the North between disadvantaged children in the Northern Powerhouse and London suggest this policy hasn’t tackled the scale of the specific issues affecting many of our schools. Academisation in the north has also lacked enough suitable sponsors. The successful academy chains like the Co-operative Academies are only able to take so many schools, for instance.
Previous work by analysts Education Datalab has shown that the length of time a pupil is eligible for pupil premium has a much greater impact on attainment than having been eligible for free school meals at some point during their school career. Two out of every three of the secondary schools with the very highest proportions of pupils eligible for school meals throughout their education are in the Northern Powerhouse. As University of Bristol research has shown, the schools facing greater challenges under performance measures like progress 8 – the measure of progress between the end of primary and secondary schools – are treated inequitably. Some schools with highly concentrated numbers of the most disadvantaged pupils are beating the national averages. The Northern Powerhouse needs an extra £1bn a year, focused on those schools teaching the greatest proportion of long-term disadvantaged, so that we can work towards closing the gap in attainment overall.
The next ingredient to realising our ambition is greater devolution. Devolving further power and control to the north could have a transformational effect, increasing productivity so its regions truly pull their weight in economic terms. We want to take on the David Miliband mantra of double devolution, taking powers from Whitehall and also empowering local government to enable communities, co-operatives and citizens more.
Lord O’Neill, NPP’s vice chair, last year wrote a report on the future prospects of devolution in the Northern Powerhouse. Since then, there has been little progress on new devolution deals or extending current agreements, apart from the success of Borderlands with Carlisle City Council and its partners Northumberland CC, Cumbria CC, Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders councils. It is vital that the Treasury and wider departments across government all support a devolution framework.
In May, the first metro mayor for North of Tyne CA was elected, which brings the north to five metro mayors in total. Alongside the civic leaders and the wider combined authorities yet to agree mayoral deals, we have the basis for more formal collaboration at a northern level where it will be most necessary, such as for trade and investment.
However, further progress must be made, as devolution remains one of the essential ingredients of the Northern Powerhouse. Alongside the mayoral model, we need to consider fiscal devolution for areas that want it. We need to consider growth deals for places like West Cumbria, with assets like Sellafield, and Lancaster and South Cumbria, with the BAE shipyard and the prospect of Eden North, in Morecambe, a transformational project for the wider Northern Powerhouse but is rooted firmly in its place.
Which brings me to my third and final ingredient – major long-term investment in transport infrastructure. Connectivity is critical to creating a Northern Powerhouse capable of taking on and improving the world. Transformational projects such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail will allow young people to access skilled jobs and educational opportunities, while also revolutionising productivity. The success of democratic oversight of rail franchising was pioneered by local authorities, advocated for by many of the cities, and the Williams Review into the rail industry must go further to bring together infrastructure delivery oversight and service commissioning at the most appropriate level.
We need an ultra-modern network, on road, rail, in the air and at our ports, so our school-leavers and graduates can look for skilled job opportunities from Liverpool to Sunderland, so people in Carlisle can jump on a train for a night out in Leeds, and so everyone in the north is within an hour and a half from Manchester Airport to fly anywhere in the world.
The north’s high-speed rail network, bringing together HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail as one integrated network, will see six services an hour between Leeds and Manchester, each taking under half an hour, making commuting quick and simple. Bradford, the UK’s youngest city, will be transformed, closer in time to Leeds and Manchester, but also with much more frequent walk-on, walk-off service.
The local authorities of the Northern Powerhouse have started to decide the fate of transport. What is now needed is the scale of ambition to accelerate the progress already made by Transport for the North, ensuring that it remains accountable to mayoral, wider combined authorities and local government collectively. They are not simply the Department for Transport in Leeds and Manchester, and although moving civil servants in that department to the north is welcome it is more important to devolve responsibilities out of the department to city regions and TfN.
The chancellor Philip Hammond has committed himself to the case for the economics behind the Northern Powerhouse as a project. What we now need to see, is a clear commitment in the comprehensive spending review to, alongside HS2, deliver the £120bn needed for major transport and city region schemes including the £39bn for Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Henri Murison, director, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership