Cities Powering Ahead

The Northern Powerhouse is one of the defining policies of this government and cities are at its heart

George Osborne said last week that one of the main reasons that he chose to remain in the Treasury was his passion to push the project further. He gave a speech on the Northern Powerhouse in his first set-piece speech since the election, with Jim O’Neill and James Wharton also having been appointed Ministers. There’s every sign that he wants to speed the agenda up, also built on the emphasis that a strong Northern economy is good for the country as a whole.

What has really characterised the project has been the level of cooperation between Conservative Ministers at a national level and Labour politicians and civic leaders at the city level. Undoubtedly the most prominent of these Northern leaders has been Sir Howard Bernstein, the Chief Executive of Manchester City Council. Sir Howard and Sir Richard Leese, the city’s Labour leader, have worked effectively with Osborne and Greg Clark to ensure that Manchester has continued its recent resurgence. If the Northern Powerhouse is a flagship of this government, then Manchester is without doubt the flagship of the Northern Powerhouse.

With this in mind, Sir Howard spoke at a Weber Shandwick dinner this week with leading business figures, all interested to hear about Manchester’s success and the Northern Powerhouse concept as a whole. What makes the Northern Powerhouse stand out compared to previous, patchy, attempts to narrow the North-South divide is that it is city based, rather than region based. As Sir Howard has made clear, if the Northern Powerhouse is to succeed it needs to be driven from the cities, rather than from the centre. Manchester has been the leader in the Northern Powerhouse movement because it has shown real desire for power to be devolved from Whitehall and has set out this ambition clearly and succinctly.

Much of the discussion ranged around the importance and relationship between a stronger Northern economy and a stronger UK economy, and the role that business can play in this. It was repeatedly emphasised that Northern cities should be places that create high quality, highly skilled jobs, with the transport, digital and housing infrastructure in place to enable them to do this.  The importance of placemaking to Northern cities was raised by a number of people at the dinner – ensuring that housing development was also based around creating a sense of place and community, with facilities to match.

The need to end the ‘brain drain’, which has seen talented young people leave the North for London was regarded by many round the table as a priority and one that Manchester is really addressing.

Strong civic leadership is something that has made Manchester stand out in the Northern Powerhouse movement and the position of an elected Mayor, now agreed for Manchester, is the ultimate example of strong civic leadership. Fiscal devolution and autonomy over a number of areas is a key part of the Powerhouse agenda. Sir Howard made clear, only the position of an elected Mayor provides the level of accountability and responsibility to go with these greater levels of autonomy.

The Northern Powerhouse is proving to be one of the defining concepts of the past decade in British politics. George Osborne will hope that a revived Northern economy is one of his major legacies from his time as Chancellor. As Sir Howard made clear last night, the Northern Powerhouse is a serious, lasting and ambitious project, which could fundamentally change both the structure of the British economy and how the country is run.