Following Brexit, the Northern Powerhouse Is More Important Than Ever

Busayo Esan


Stagnating wages, low productivity and the de-industrialisation of communities both across the UK and the developed world have happened not because of institutions such as the EU – which has spent decades investing in such areas – but because successive governments have followed a policy of neglect, failing to curb the excesses of global capitalism. Despite the revolving carousel of government front benches, little has been done to reverse decades of post-industrial decline outside the North of England’s urban hubs; voting to leave, and thereby voting against the establishment, was their way of being heard. With Article 50 negotiations on the horizon, and vast opportunities beyond the continent now open to the UK, it is crucial that the Northern Powerhouse project is put at the forefront of trade, investment and general public policy.

Even more remarkable than the outcome of the referendum, was how polarised it revealed us to be on almost every fault line; class, education, age and, of course, geography. A mere 11 of 125 counting areas in the North voted remain, and it’s clear why. Across the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and Humber, areas such as the former mining town of Barnsley, or the deprived coastal town of Hartlepool that has long lost its shipbuilding and steel industries, have been immiserated by a dearth of infrastructure and investment, unemployment, and redundant skills. Not only have these ailments created a sense of disaffection, but they together paint a mural backdrop to some stark statistics: only 15% of the jobs created across the country between 2006-15 landed in the North; and, according to an ONS study; male and female healthy life expectancy is 15.5% and 17.8% lower respectively if you are born in the North rather than the South.

George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project – aiming to rebalance the economy away from over-reliance on London and the South-East –  is the closest any British government has come to redressing these imbalances for decades. With Brexit leaving many pledged investments in doubt, including HS2 and HS3, it is important that the government not only work to secure such investments, but go further and develop a bold, audacious and multifaceted development strategy for the North.

ResPublica’s  ‘A Manifesto for the North’ sets out a comprehensive and well-costed blueprint for the region that goes well beyond the oft-cited, albeit important, need for trade and transport infrastructure. For the Northern Powerhouse to take off, it needs a workforce with competitive skills and qualifications. With only three Northern universities ranking in the top 100 globally, the North needs a STEM-focused ‘MIT of the North’ with strong links to industry – either a specific institution or by existing universities pooling their resources together towards R&D and funding. Newly established metro mayors should follow the the London mayor’s fund model of ‘raising donations from corporate sponsors, foundations and Northern philanthropists in the north’ in order to  secure funding for skills, employment and enterprise programmes, principally for those from deprived backgrounds.

On energy, deep geothermal resources exist in Cornwall that, through extraction, could provide jobs and tackle fuel poverty. The North East’s Weardale Granite holds 220,000 terawatt hours of geothermal energy – this is close to global energy demand for an entire year.

On housing, the city regions of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, being able to retain stamp duty receipts will help to fill the shortfall of approximately 86,000 homes expected in these cities by 2030. With the North having more empty housing stock than anywhere else in the UK, cities and localities should be given powers allowing them to redevelop these into affordable housing across the region, not just in the cities.

If well executed, such proposals, plus many others, could dramatically change the fortunes of the hitherto dubbed ‘Northern Poorhouse’.

This ‘left behind’ phenomenon is not UK-specific however, but symptomatic of a global phenomenon that is sweeping the industrialised world. In the United States, places like Henry County, Virginia that have seen businesses fail or move abroad – and with them manufacturing jobs – due to  international trade deals such as NAFTA, have resoundingly taken to  Donald Trump’s credo:  ‘Americanism, not globalism.’ On both sides of the Atlantic, neglect has meant that the immigrant – history’s perennial scapegoat – has become the human face of globalisation and, by implication, all of society’s economic woes. By seriously addressing these North-South imbalances, the UK could be an example to countries in Europe and beyond that have seen inequality rise, and with it protectionist and nativist fervour.

Making globalisation work for everyone – not just the plutocrats and bureaucrats in London, as is widely perceived – is the only real medicine. We should use Brexit as a reset to reinvigorate the North and work towards making a divided country whole.

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