Reinvention Against Replication Part 2
The Northern Powerhouse is a phrase most will have heard frequently over the past couple of years. For much of this century’s first decade, the growing imbalance in North-South prosperity was wilfully ignored by some, and indifferently acknowledged by others. It became just one of those facts. The English drink tea, and the South does a lot better than the North. It was only when the recession entered its stride that the issue received mainstream attention, awakening a slumbering force of discontent amongst those in the North as they were embattled by each new austerity measure.
Arguably, the country’s painstaking economic recovery only served to accentuate this angst. The recovery was, for the most part, a regionally-exclusive one. House prices began to soar in London, the capital became the digital centre of Europe, surpassing even the likes of Berlin, and each penny of the financial sector’s generous offering of bonuses was begrudgingly counted by those forced to accept that an annual 3% pay rise was a thing of the past.
Unsurprisingly then, after the ruinous smoke had settled and austerity became the new way of life, George Osborne announced the need for a new Northern Powerhouse - Manchester. From cautious strategising to reality, at least on paper, the Northern Powerhouse has become a part of official political lexicon. Essentially, as it exists now, it is a concept seeking to recognise the growing disparity between North and South, and a nod to the voices of discontent that remained buried through the worst of the recession. The timing of the announcement wasn’t coincidence either, a comfortable year before the general election.
However, the instinct to introduce a plan to bridge the great North-South divide certainly wasn’t exclusively politically motivated. Internationally, exhibiting the UK as a prosperous, strong and healthy recovering country has always been a bit of a hard sell when including the North in the pitch. If London is the athletic side of the UK, the North is the gimpy leg that it’s desperately trying to hide. Perhaps the Broken Britain idea is a bit misleading too. We aren’t broken, just a bit handicapped.
The Northern Powerhouse strategy was released in detail in March 2015 in the Transport for the North report. However, other than the strides made in establishing the HS2, which is a cornerstone of the strategy, little tangible progress can be seen. Ed Cox of think tank IPPR North succinctly described the plan as ‘a concept, rather than any actual, physical thing.’
But perhaps this is missing the point. As we’ve noted with the likes of Liverpool, Brighton and Blackpool (see previous blog post), tangible, physical progress and job creation are only one side of the package. The other is branding - how a city establishes and reestablishes its identity to successfully attract investment. A look at Glasgow reveals much of the same. The city has established several ‘centres of excellence’, such as within renewable energy, to reinvigorate its national image. And extending the scope, we find London - a well-branded city internationally recognised as the hub of many knowledge-based services, not least within the tech and financial sectors.
The conservative government has sought to apply a similar strategy to the North - in a process designed to resell the North as an investable business hub, both to the English people and foreign investors. Transport for the North is more than a plan; it is a sales pitch - a calculated and thought-out attempt to reinvent the North, remove the shackles of its past and the disdain circulating through the recession years, to thrust it into a brighter, London-styled future. Funnily enough, the report even has a tagline: One Agenda, One Economy, One North.
Of course, this certainly isn’t intended to undermine or criticise the strategy. The ‘reality’ or fruition of the Northern Powerhouse will not be marked by a particular event or point in time. It will be a slow process of branding and reimagining the region, of supplanting the ghosts of industry’s now gone and cultivating an image of glorious green pastures stretching across Greater Manchester.
In 1934 the Special Areas Act sought to encourage industrial growth in areas of unemployment. The aims and tools have changed, but the principles are much the same. Why Manchester was chosen to be the epicentre of this new North, it is difficult to say. As each successful city must establish an autonomous identity, whether proactively or retroactively, so must each region. The Northern Powerhouse is simply a rewrite of the country’s narrative, an effective branding exercise that realistically addresses the economy’s newfound strength in knowledge-based services, in which creating hubs and centres have become the name of the game.