Neil Lee is an Associate Professor in Economic Geography at the LSE where he is the Director of the MSc in Local Economic Development and the BSc in Geography with Economics. His research focuses on cities and the social dimensions of economic change. You can find Neil on Twitter at @ndrlee.
The 23rd of June is an important date. For most in the UK, it’s the anniversary of Brexit. But for a few regional policy obsessives, it is the anniversary of the Northern Powerhouse. On the 23rd June 2014 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, launched the Powerhouse at a speech at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Technology. He set out a vision for England’s (relatively) disadvantaged North based on four pillars of transport, science and innovation, devolution, and culture. The agenda has survived two general elections, just about, and has spawned copy-cat initiatives from other regions. The government is marking the anniversary with a series of events including a business summit and a ‘Great Exhibition of the North’.
In an open-access paper for Regional Studies, I argue that the Northern Powerhouse is a problematic concept: geographically ambiguous with no clear aims, activities or financing. It is a clever formulation which serves a political purpose, a top-down economic development strategy sold as devolution, and a great piece of marketing. It is part-strategy but also part-brand, used to sell the north to outside investors, and to sell the conservative party to the north.
But what has been achieved over four years? In terms of brand recognition, it has done reasonably well. A poll in late 2015 showed that 44 percent of North had never heard of it. This doesn’t sound impressive, but for 56 percent of people to have actually heard of a regional policy is actually very good. How many people had heard of Regional Development Agencies? In marketing terms, as John Tomaney argues, it has been a relative success.
Has it meant more money for the North? We can’t tell. The government has claimed that large investments, such as the Henry Royce Centre in Manchester, were part of the overall strategy. Yet some spending announced as part of the Northern Powerhouse was provided to other places outside the region (and other parts were simply statutory spending), so it is hard to trust the government. It has been used to add coherence to existing investments, even where these would have been made anyway. But the finances are opaque and there is no counterfactual.
Geographically, it has moved from being focused on Manchester to a wider pan-Northern strategy. Theoretically, early speeches cited research on agglomeration and economists such as Ed Glaeser. But focused spending on Manchester has been hard to sustain politically. There were understandable protests from other equally ambitious, but cash strapped, parts of the North and the government has re-thought this focus. As Jake Berry, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse puts it: “Northern Powerhouse 2.0 has to be about more than our great cities, it has to be a whole-North approach”. However, in doing so, it has moved from being theoretically informed to a more general strategy. Concentrating investments geographically sounds good in theory, but is much hard in practice.
The problem of competition for resources has extended beyond the North, and other parts of the country have tried to develop a similar formula. These have included an Edinburgh-Glasgow Powerhouse and the – more original – Great Western Cities. The Mayor of London published a report calling London the ‘Global Powerhouse’. But the most important of these counter-brands has been the Midlands Engine, a similar strategic approach. The Northern Powerhouse agenda has reaffirmed the importance of branding in economic development: branding regions to outside investors, and policy agendas for voters.
What is the likely future of the Northern Powerhouse? Despite an initial wobble, it has survived beyond the political career of its originator, George Osborne, who was sacked after the Brexit vote. Institutional changes, such as Transport for the North and devolution, will have long-term implications. But regardless of its strategic impact, the Northern Powerhouse has become a powerful brand. The Northern Powerhouse has a few more years in it yet.