Northern Powerhouse agenda 'must now be led by the North and widen its focus to towns and countryside', says IPPR North

Think-tank IPPR North has called for a shift in focus for the Northern Powerhouse
Think-tank IPPR North has called for a shift in focus for the Northern Powerhouse

The next phase of the Northern Powerhouse agenda must be led by the North itself and focus more on towns and rural areas rather than just cities, a leading think-tank claims today.

In its annual State of the North report, IPPR North argues that the Government is so consumed by the “chaos” caused by Brexit at Westminster that it has lost focus on the Northern Powerhouse “at the very time it is needed most”.

Sarah Longlands of the IPPR North think-tank

Sarah Longlands of the IPPR North think-tank

It says the concept, first introduced by then-Chancellor George Osborne in 2014 to close the gap between North and South, should now move beyond its initial focus on productivity, transport and major city regions.

And the think-tank calls for efforts to promote the North to be “of the North, by the North, for the North”, with “comprehensive devolution” of powers and resources key to closing economic and democratic imbalances.

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Among the recommendations by the report’s author Luke Raikes are that the Northern Powerhouse agenda must reduce its focus on big city regions like Leeds and Manchester and “draw on all assets and focus on a diverse range of places – including towns, cities, rural areas and natural assets”.

But the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which represents business and civic leaders and is chaired by Mr Osborne, suggested the call to move away from larger city-based economies was “naive” and “short-sighted”.

The think-tank said public spending in the North has fallen by £6.3bn in real terms since 2009/10, despite the South East and South West seeing a £3.2bn rise.

It added that weekly pay has fallen by £21 in the North in real terms since 2008, with half-a-million people working in accommodation and food services jobs where weekly pay is half the national average.

The North has also lost 300,000 government jobs since the peak in 2009 and eight of the 10 worst-hit police forces are in the North.

On transport, London has received twice as much transport spending per head than the UK average or the North over the last decade, while London received 41.1 per cent of all Arts Council England national portfolio grant funding in the 2018-22 programme.

And many of the neighbourhoods with the lowest life expectancy are found in the North, including Salford, Bradford, Sefton and Sunderland and the neighbourhood with the lowest male life expectancy in England is in Blackpool, 68, compared to the England average of 79.

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And Susan Hinchcliffe, Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Leader of Bradford Council, said: “Echoing our own commitment to inclusive growth, this report is right to stress that all our cities, towns and rural areas are essential to, and must benefit from, the drive to strengthen the economy of the North of England.

“With the right support from the Government, we can ensure all our communities can take advantage of the opportunities digital technology is bringing, delivering huge benefits for our region and the UK as a whole.

“Investment in major transport infrastructure, including HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail with a station in Bradford City Centre, is critical to delivering the North of England’s full potential.”

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, said the report showed the "irrefutable case" it was time the North was at the front of the queue for public money.

The report added that the original Northern Powerhouse agenda was led by the Chancellor and delivered by central government agencies, adding that the next phase “must be led by the North”.

IPPR North director Sarah Longlands said: “The North has started to see the impacts of the Northern Powerhouse agenda most noticeably with the elected mayors, the growing recognition of the North’s external profile and the creation of Transport for the North. The growing confidence and appetite for economic change is something to be celebrated and built upon.

“However, too many of the North’s people and places are yet to feel the benefits. One million northern children live in poverty. Many families depend upon precarious and poorly paid jobs and levels of healthy life expectancy in many areas constrain the opportunities of people to play an active role in their local economy.

“But there is a better way. Now is the time to develop the Northern Powerhouse agenda into a plan which works for the people of the North providing them with opportunities to share in the potential economic opportunities of the future.”

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s director, Henri Murison, said: “On many of these recommendations in the IPPR North report, including on education and skills importance, Northern Powerhouse Partnership would firmly agree.

“However, IPPR North’s rejection of the concept of building a virtual city, linking our great cities with ultra-modern connectivity to create a single market and dramatically increase productivity, is short-sighted and overlooks the central principle of the Northern Powerhouse.

"The Cities Growth Commission, chaired by our Vice-Chair Lord Jim O’Neill, underpinned the economic logic of the benefits for better connecting the North’s city regions by Northern Powerhouse Rail, the business case for which will be completed tomorrow.

"Focusing on investing in towns as individual entities rather than as part of our metro economies in integrated growth strategies is naïve; growth, collaboration and connectivity between city regions will provide a huge boost to all our towns and smaller communities as well by integrating them with their nearest Northern cities through Transport for the North’s strategic transport plan."

Emphasising the importance of devolution, the report said plans to hand power to the Leeds City Region were blocked by local MPs, but there was “now extremely strong support for the ‘One Yorkshire’ devolution proposal”.

A Government spokesman said the North had never had such a powerful local voice, “following the election of four new metro mayors, and a fifth on the way, who we have empowered to champion their communities and build on this success”.

He said: “The North is thriving, with a record number of people in work and over 200,000 more businesses today than in 2010.

“We are also backing the whole of the Northern Powerhouse with £3.4 billion to boost local economic growth and a record £13 billion in transport improvements, meaning almost £250 per person - more than any other region - will be invested next year to help commuters and motorists across the North.”