218: The biggest challenge facing the north – dealing with Westminster
The invention of the Northern Powerhouse aimed to bolster the north of England, rebalance the economy, secure devolution, and give it a presence on the global stage to help secure inward investment. But the halcyon days of constant positive announcements from government have long gone. Now the North needs to fight even harder for the attention of Westminster.
The Northern Powerhouse continues to have many strengths but the key one was having George Osborne, the Chancellor, as a vocal champion. His relationship with Sir Richard Leese (Leader, Manchester City Council) and Sir Howard Bernstein (Chief Executive, Manchester City Council) was critical. That triumvirate drove the project forward.
But now two of the three have gone and the political agenda has moved on, although the Government say they remain committed to the Northern Powerhouse. But just as London’s relationship with central government was different after Boris Johnson, now the North’s relationship is different.
Circumstances have stepped in to complicate the relationship – the Brexit vote, the election of Mayors, the different approaches to devolution adopted across parts of the North, and the evolving relationship between some parts of the North and their more natural, economic allies such as Scotland, to name but a few.
You only had to hear Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, talk at the Labour Party conference last year to recognise how much the relationship between the North and Westminster, and even with London, had changed.
The challenge is for the North to strengthen its relationship with Westminster whilst realising that it will never be the same as it was under George Osborne.
So what does it need to think about?
- The problem of the past – there is no doubt that being too close to George Osborne is a problem for anything associated with the name, ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Once your time in politics has past, it is extremely difficult to recapture it (although many try…). It might be that the name works in an international context but maybe needs to be revised for Westminster audiences.
- The direct line has disappeared – the North can no longer just ring up the government and get a deal. Instead, it has to invest the time and effort in engaging with all parts of government and spend time educating and building relationships. The shortcut is no longer there.
- The role of the Mayors – the new Mayors need to decide on their local relationships as well as their national relationships. Some of the Mayors are closer to the Government than others, and it is taking time for the new roles and responsibilities locally to be worked out. There is no doubt that from an external perspective, the West Midlands seems to have stolen a march on the North in recent months.
- The role of communities – an ‘elite-led’ approach will not work, instead communities across the North need to be at the heart of the strategy. So there needs to be a greater emphasis on working together and a role for local communities. The APPG on the Northern Powerhouse is a good starting point in bringing local and national together.
- Ensure a clear voice for business – whilst this has been the case in some areas, others need to work on their engagement with local business and their priorities. These types of arguments are what Westminster will want to hear, especially in a post-Brexit environment where support for business will become even more critical particularly in working out how to raise productivity locally.
- Think ahead of government, do not just react to it – effective engagement with Westminster thinks ahead. Instead of just responding to the current priorities, it moves beyond them which enables government to show leadership to the electorate. Being forward thinking will help the North with its Westminster audiences.
It is clear that what the North needs more than anything is sustained investment in its infrastructure. Just as London suffered for decades from under-investment, it is time that the North had an opportunity not simply to have the cast offs from the South East.
The recent comments by Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, that money (around £43 billion potentially) is needed for public transport links in cities to be served by HS2 is one of those issues that the North needs to engage with Westminster on.
There, of course, continues to be good work going on. Transport for the North, for instance, is taking welcome action on the transport network but major cross-cutting challenges remain.
The issues that drove the creation of the Northern Powerhouse remain as relevant as ever. But if the North is to get what it needs from Westminster then it needs to think afresh about its engagement.