The State of the North

Tom Forth,

We’ve made a lot of progress since the last conference I attended about the Northern Powerhouse. Then it was Nick Clegg promoting his grass-roots, bottom-up, community-led Northern Futures project. Today it was IPPR North providing a platform in Sheffield to discuss what devolution success might look like and how we can achieve it.

IPPR North launched their 2015 State of the North report which sets out some much-needed tests of how devolution is progressing. Across four main themes, their useful innovation is to measure both changes in policy and in impact.

Previous attempts at closing the economic divide between London and the North’s cities have failed largely because we’ve never tried. If we try this time and we still fail then me and many others will be forced to change our opinions. I think that matters.

The morning saw talks from national politicians. Dan Jarvis said some carefully chosen words. John Prescott said some less carefully chosen and less coherent words. Themes included a swipe at Jeremy Corbyn and an admission that his regional assemblies plans had failed because Labour offered too little devolution. In between I said some poorly connected things about steel, compact deodorants, and the Krebs cycle.

Dan Jarvis left immediately. Back to London. Prescott managed to answer a few questions before he too dashed off. Back to London.

It still boggles my mind that this is the type of flying-visit leadership that many devolution-sceptics are arguing to retain in the North of England.

 

After lunch things got interesting. Julie Dore, the leader of Sheffield city council, was refreshingly nervous as she began speaking, and refreshingly clear and focused very soon after. Sheffield seems to have identified that Leeds will always beat them at finance and law and that Manchester has already won at media and transport. That leaves the steel city with the modern version of what they’ve always excelled at; advanced manufacturing. Bruce Katz has visited and he seems to agree. I probably do too, as long as there’s room for a lot of that manufacturing to be virtual; the same type of manufacturing that ARM do in Cambridge.

Julie’s passion to get started as soon as possible was obvious. Her defence of the devolution deal Sheffield has just signed with Osborne was strong. Her insistence that Sheffield had got a lot of what it wanted, and a lot more than Westminster had originally offered, was extremely convincing. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to elect her as their Mayor.

Next we heard from the CEO of Wakefield Council. She gave a very robust defence of Leeds City Region’s devolution proposal. The strength of her argument against a “Greater Yorkshire” deal implied to me that there is currently an almighty fight about this behind closed doors. Dave Green, the leader of Bradford City Council, posted a blog in the evening that made that even clearer.

Last up was Richard Leese of Manchester. With that city’s deal already signed he was free to defend it. Manchester had been working on this for over a decade, it had got a huge amount of what the people of Manchester, via their councillors, wanted. It was, he insisted, a bottom-up deal dragging power from Westminster to Manchester to deliver better services to the people of Greater Manchester.

Just as with the last conference on devolution, the most inspiring contributors to the debate were Northern. Their ambition and passion to improve their cities was clear.

Most importantly, they stuck around. Not to talk about tax credits, or Jeremy Corbyn, or how the Tories were just copying their policies. They stuck around to talk about how the North can be an even better place to live for even more of its people.