The ‘Northern’ Powerhouse

The received wisdom is that the Government is no longer committed to the Northern Powerhouse.

The summer was beset with stories that the project is on its last legs. That there is little love lost between Theresa May and George Osborne – chief architect of the concept – is well documented, and is likely to have contributed to the abandonment of several flagship projects of the previous Conservative Government, including the Northern Powerhouse.

May’s influential former advisors – Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – were accused by Jim O’Neill, former Goldman Sachs economist, Treasury Minister, and leading advocate of the Northern Powerhouse, of opposing the idea and even refusing to use the term.

Andrew Percy resigned from his role as Northern Powerhouse Minister after June’s election to “pursue other challenges” and return to backbenches, despite being asked by Theresa May to stay in the role. Hardly a vote of confidence in the project. The following day, the chief executive of Transport for the North – a body formed under the Northern Powerhouse banner to transform transport infrastructure across the North of England – resigned, instead opting for a role in the private sector.

And in July, Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, announced that the Government no longer intended to electrify the entirety of the TransPennine railway between Manchester and Leeds. This seemingly broke a promise made in 2015 by former Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin who said that electrifying the line was “at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.” Just a few days later, Grayling gave his backing to the £30 billion Crossrail 2 project which will run through London, from Hertfordshire to Surrey.

This led many to suggest that, to all intents and purposes, the Northern Powerhouse is dead.

With its chief architect now out of Government, some people that I spoke to relayed this concern. “The Northern Powerhouse died with Osborne, there is no one with the status and intellectual capacity to push it forward,” a Labour councillor involved in Transport for the North told me.

Osborne is attempting to breathe life back into the concept. In a recent Financial Times article, he acknowledged “there was a risk that the Northern Powerhouse would end with my own political career,” and lobbied Theresa May to make it part of her premiership relaunch at the Conservative Party Conference. To emphasise his point, Osborne is due to speak at a Conference fringe event, fittingly hosted in Manchester, in his capacity as chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. With May weakened by a poor general election result, and Timothy and Hill now gone, Osborne knows that this is an opportune time to reassert his vision.

Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor, has hinted that extra funds may be made available for the Northern Powerhouse in the Autumn Statement and that it remains “a key part of the [government’s] industrial strategy.” This will be music to Osborne’s ears. May and Hammond are keen to redefine their domestic policy agenda to prove that there is more to their premiership than Brexit.

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Undoubtedly, the project will require Cabinet support and committed funds to succeed. However, while Westminster faltered, the concept has taken on a life of its own. Countless business associations, network groups, enterprise initiatives, lobbying organisations and so on, have sprung up under the guise of the Northern Powerhouse.

‘Brand Osborne’ also helped to place the initiative on an international footing with successful marketing exercises to Chinese and Middle East investors. Remember the Chinese Premier’s visit to the Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club (itself owned by Sheikh Mansour, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates). More funds may have been forthcoming had Osborne known that the Premier supports rivals Manchester United.

The project increasingly belongs to the North as well as the government departments of the South. However, the concept is not uniformly acknowledged or understood across the North.

The Northern Powerhouse has a distinctly urban feel. It is a political concept unashamedly grounded in Osborne’s modern, metropolitan worldview. If Britain is to compete on the international stage, the argument runs, the cities of the North must come together to create sufficient scale to attract investment and talent. London’s success must be emulated; “All this requires scale. You need a big place, with lots of people. Like London.”

Osborne’s 2014 incarnation is the reframing of the challenges and solutions in a well-trodden debate about rebalancing the North and South. In 2004, John Prescott, then Labour Deputy Prime Minister, instigated the Northern Way, a collaboration between three northern regional development agencies to address the national output gap. The visions have much in common, such as the need for investment in transport links to improve connectivity and more localised decision-making powers.

A key point of divergence relates to Osborne’s focus on cities compared with Prescott’s emphasis on regions. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that in Runcorn, despite being a town steeped in industrial history and located between Liverpool and Manchester, few people had heard of the Northern Powerhouse. Of the many questions I asked during my time in the Runcorn, none consistently drew as many blank looks as “what is the Northern Powerhouse?” This idea feels at home in the cities, and remote from mid-sized towns.

However, not all cities feel equally invested.

Simon Henig, leader of Durham City Council, told me that the North East has always felt isolated. Henig pointed out that in many respects, Newcastle and Durham have as much in common with London (a 3-hour train journey) as it does Manchester (2.5-hours). Efforts to improve transport links are dominated by talk of Manchester-to-Leeds, with little regard for Newcastle and Hull. At best, the Northern Powerhouse is currently a North-Western Powerhouse.

Even in the North West, there is an overriding sense that the concept belongs to Manchester. One Liverpudlian I spoke to referred to the idea as “Manchester’s Northern Powerhouse.” Even members of Liverpool City Council suggest that the Manchester Powerhouse would be a more appropriate title. “They are a country mile ahead,” one councillor told me.

This impression is largely informed by the comparative successes of the new Metro Mayors, elected in May of this year. Devolution of powers to city regions is one prong of Osborne’s vision – “global cities have powerful city governments,” like London. Where Andy Burnham has hit the ground running as leader of Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), Steve Rotherham, chief of Liverpool City Region (LCR), has got off to a stuttering start. Liverpool is bedevilled by political wrangling between Steve Rotherham and Joe Anderson, leader of Liverpool City Council, with reports suggesting that they no longer speak. When there is a breakdown in communication within a city region, it does not bode well for communication across city regions.

GMCA is the poster child for regional devolution. Its local councils formed as a combined authority long before others around the country, which has resulted in a more integrated governance structure. As such, relatively limited powers have been afforded to LCR in the form of control of the transport budget, plus enhanced powers in adult education and housing and planning. By contrast, Burnham has taken charge of far a more wide-reaching set of powers, including the £6 billion health and social care budget.

Manchester is seen to have got its act together and been rewarded accordingly.

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That something needs to be done is beyond doubt.

The UK is the most geographically unbalanced economy in Europe. Office for National Statistics data shows that London and the South East are responsible for almost 40% of total UK output. According to IPPR think tank, “Productivity – output per person – in London is 32% above the national average; indeed, London is the only region or nation of the country with above-average productivity.”

Following a tumultuous summer, the Northern Powerhouse appears to be getting back on track. For the time being, the Northern Powerhouse belongs to Manchester. As the largest city in the North of England, it is perhaps logical that Manchester is where Osborne chose to anchor his vision.

However, a doubling-down of shared political will is required for the Powerhouse to become a truly Northern reality.

Liverpool: A city up for a fight

“We are proud of Liverpool, and we will fight for it,” declared Cllr. Peter Mitchell when we met in the grand surrounds of the Liverpool Council Chamber ahead of the quarterly council meeting.

In the meeting that followed, the Labour-dominated council took the fight to the Government, led by seasoned political bruiser Joe Anderson, the directly-elected Mayor of Liverpool. In a powerful attack, Anderson drew a link between the recent spate of shootings in Merseyside – 50 in 2017 to date, with five murders in the last 18 months – and cuts to the Merseyside Police budget. “We need to say it loud and clear, and we need to say it to this Government, that you cannot cut the police any further”, urging those in the chamber “to come together, to mobilise, to organise a demonstration in support of our police.” Anderson is resolute in fighting for Liverpool’s voice to be heard in Westminster, and you get the sense he is not going to back down.

Another motion was passed that evening which explicitly called for the Government to “end austerity and return the £420 million that has been cut from this Authority so that public services can be restored to the levels they were at pre-2010.” With 80 out of 90 seats under its control, Labour has a firm hold of Liverpool City Council. Anderson intends to make full use of it when standing up for Liverpool in the face of Government cuts.

The readiness of Liverpool councillors to defend their city with such defiance mirrors past struggles which have shaped Liverpool’s identity. These events provide the context which frames the strength of feeling that I witnessed during that meeting.

First, the lengthy fight for justice for the families of those that lost their lives in the Hillsborough tragedy.

At 11am on 26 April 2016, 27 years after the disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives at the FA cup semi-final, the second coroner’s hearing finally delivered a verdict of unlawful killing, quashing the original inquest’s verdict of accidental death. The verdict also stated that the behaviour of Liverpool fans did not contribute to the disaster.

The fight for justice was principally for the families of ‘The 96’, but it also unified a city in a fight against ‘The Establishment’. Chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Margaret Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son in the tragedy, summed up the view of the city when she said; “Let’s be honest about this – people were against us. We had the media against us, as well as the establishment. Everything was against us. The only people that weren’t against us was our own city. That’s why I am so grateful to my city and so proud of my city. They always believed in us.”

When we discussed Hillsborough, Lord Mayor Malcolm Kennedy explained, “I think you have to be a Liverpudlian to get it; to really get it, you had to be there.” This is certainly true, but spend time in Liverpool and you can still see and feel the legacy of the tragic events that took place in 1989. As a survivor of the Leppings Lane stand at Hillsborough, the sadness that can be heard in Peter Mitchell’s voice, and seen in his eyes, when he recounts the disaster is truly harrowing. Liverpudlians knew that the authorities were telling lies; they knew there was a cover-up by South Yorkshire Police; they knew that The Sun newspaper was tarnishing Liverpool’s reputation using headlines based on lies.

Four days after the tragedy, The Sun newspaper ran “The Truth” front page story which made untruthful allegations that Liverpool fans had “picked pockets of victims”, “urinated on brave cops” and “beat up PCs giving the kiss of life”, citing comments made by unnamed South Yorkshire Police officers and Irvine Patnick, then Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam. This resulted in a boycott of The Sun by large numbers of Merseysiders, costing the newspaper millions of pounds in lost revenue.

New campaigns such as ‘The Total Eclipse of The S*n’ and ‘Shun The S*n’ have sprung up in response to the latest inquest with the aim of eradicating the newspaper from the city altogether. Swathes of posters and stickers can be seen in shop windows, a fleet of around 70 taxis (and growing) are adorned with the campaigns’ logos, ten local councils have passed motions in solidarity with the campaigns, and Liverpool FC has banned the paper’s journalists from all club premises.

Malcolm Kennedy told me, “If they [Liverpudlians] feel justified in having been treated badly, nobody is more powerful in defending itself.” That the city has the energy and character to continue to fight for justice epitomises its determination. As one poster proclaims, “You picked on the wrong city.”

The second feature which explains the Council’s readiness for confrontation is a deeply-held hostility towards the Conservative Party, which stems from Liverpool’s fractious relationship with the Thatcher government in the 1980s.

There is a distinct anti-Conservative sentiment detectable in the city. This is reflected in June’s general election result, which returned exclusively Labour MPs. The Liberal Democrats have controlled the local council in the past, so the city is not blindly pro-Labour, but has long been anti-Conservative. No Conservative councillor has been elected since 1998, and the party returned less than 4% of the vote in the 2016 local election. Indeed, I saw a bright red t-shirt on display which proclaimed; “Still Hate Thatcher”.

A less obvious impact of The Sun boycott has been the elimination of a key beacon of the UK’s right-wing media narrative from the city. The Liverpool Echo and Daily Mirror, both left-wing rags by inclination, enjoy the highest circulation. It is interesting to consider to what extent the paper’s absence has influenced voting patterns. One councillor suggested that this has contributed to the formation of a more left-leaning electorate.

Part of the animosity stems from what most Liverpudlians deem a callous industrial strategy during the Thatcher years. Liverpool, once home to the largest and most advanced port in the world, which created a vast wealth, had fallen out of favour. It is estimated that 50% of manufacturing jobs disappeared from the city between 1972 and 1982, and large parts of the city had fallen into disrepair.

Although Liverpool was a victim of structural changes in the British economy, Thatcher’s policies were seen to be making a bad situation worse. Confidential conversations which took place following the devastating Toxteth riots in 1981 – and released thirty years later – laid bare then Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe’s attempts to dissuade Thatcher from pursuing Michael Heseltine’s inner-city investment policy; “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for ‘managed decline’? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere – for example in nearby towns of which some are developing quite promisingly.” Ultimately, Heseltine’s £100 million economic regeneration proposal was downsized in favour of a £15 million scheme.

The term “managed decline” stuck, and continues to be forwarded by Liverpudlians I spoke to as a reason for their continued distrust of the Conservatives. There is a sense that the central government-imposed cuts to Liverpool City Council’s budget are an extension of the Conservatives’ neglect during the Thatcher years.

However, to characterise Liverpool as a city always on the defensive would be misleading. Today, Liverpool exudes an air of confidence that is being used to reshape the city.

The 2008 City of Culture award was symbolic of a cultural and economic renaissance. Liverpool had ridden an economic wave under New Labour and had the confidence to celebrate itself, simultaneously challenging outsiders’ negative stereotypes of the city. Locals speak fondly of 2008 as a turning-point during which the city stepped back onto the international stage.

Tourist numbers have surged over the last decade – Liverpool City Region welcomed 62 million visitors in 2016 – with the value of the visitor economy growing on average 8% per annum. Coachloads of day-trippers are drawn to Liverpool One, the 42-acre city centre shopping development, which was at one time the largest retail-led private development in Europe. Not so long ago, people went to Manchester for their retail therapy.

Bold regeneration projects have become the norm. The controversial Mann Island development, which sits in front of Liverpool’s iconic Three Graces on the waterfront of the River Mersey, is home to Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, and RIBA North and Open Eye galleries. Architecturally audacious, and not without its detractors, Mann Island’s black modernism is starkly juxtaposed to the white classicism of the Liver Building.

There is a hunger for regeneration and growth, and the city is enjoying its reinvention. A confidence, bordering on indignation, characterises its ongoing confrontation with UNESCO, which has threatened to withdraw the World Heritage status afforded in 2004 to Liverpool’s historic centre and docklands. UNESCO claim that the plan for the £5.5 billion Liverpool Waters regeneration scheme on 60 acres of redundant docklands to the north of the Three Graces fails to safeguard the area’s Outstanding Universal Value. In its current form, the development will be home to a new ferry terminal, a “house of music, arts and culture”, new Everton FC stadium, and athletes’ village for the city’s bid to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

One councillor told me that this amounts to “a threat from the chattering classes who don’t have to deal with the day-to-day dereliction [of the docklands]…we will not be threatened or take lectures.” Concessions have been made to the design of Liverpool Waters, but it seems clear from my discussions that Liverpool is intent on pressing ahead, with or without UNESCO designation.

Scousers are unfailingly proud of their city. As one adopted Scouser explained to me, “They think this is the best city in the world. No. They know this is the best city in the world.” There is no doubt that the people of Liverpool will continue to fight to show us why.

Many challenges lie ahead for Liverpool. How to plug the withdrawal of EU funding, deal with local government budget cuts, stem increasing levels of gang crime, and ensure investment into the city centre finds its way to the many deprived neighbourhoods, besides others.

Whatever the future holds, we can be sure of one thing: Liverpool is a city up for the fight.

Photos: Liverpool

The anti-austerity narrative: Clues from Boston

A year on from the vote, the Brexit post-mortem has concluded. The public discourse has moved on, and no wonder, there has been a lot of politics lately. In its place, we endure constant, trite relabelling of the type of Brexit we face. Hard versus soft. Open versus closed. Red, white and blue versus black and white. Or simply, Brexit means Brexit – which is still doing the rounds.

The ‘why’ has turned to ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘how.’ Add to that ‘by whom’ following the inability of Theresa May’s election campaign to enhance her majority and subsequent ministerial reshuffle.

In Boston, as elsewhere, there are many ‘whys’. However, there is a powerful set of characteristics which led to the 76% Leave vote, the highest in the UK. If you Google ‘Boston Brexit’ you will see that the blame is firmly placed at the feet of one issue: immigration. Indeed, Boston has the highest proportion of Eastern European immigrants of anywhere in England and Wales.

Lincolnshire has long been a migrant destination. Thousands arrived from Ireland in the mid-19th century, in large part a response to the potato famine, to work on the farms. Local councillor Paul Gleeson explained, “If you had been here 25-30 years ago, at 4am you would have seen hundreds of white vans arriving into Boston from Peterborough, Sheffield, Newark, and they would have been carrying day-workers.”

The Eastern European wave stemmed from an economic need. Technological advancements extended the farming season to just shy of 11 months, which, coupled with the growing number of food processing plants, created the need for permanent, rather than transient, workers. Simultaneously, free movement began from the 2004 accession countries, which meant large numbers of Latvians, Lithuanians and Polish arrived in Boston. The population has grown over 25% in the last 15 years to around 70,000.

Despite having spent the past five years living in London where over 40% of the population is foreign-born, I was taken aback by Boston. It took me 30 minutes of wandering around the town centre before I heard an English voice. Until you visit, you cannot appreciate it.

Naturally, the speed of change is not without issues. Rents are very high for the low-wage economy, educational attainment is sub-par with growing pressure on classroom sizes, anti-social behaviour has risen, and Boston has earned itself the undignified title as the murder capital of the UK. During my time in Boston, each of these issues, and more, were forwarded as reasons for voting Leave.

However, by far the most common reason is this: “It is not the level of immigration per se which caused me to vote Leave, it’s that government resources have not followed the numbers.” It is worth dwelling on this point. The most frequent explanation, in the highest Leave area in the country is, at its core, an anti-austerity protest.

A nationwide anti-austerity narrative is forming, which is sweeping much before it. This week’s Grenfell tower tragedy fast became politicised and developed into a metaphor for anti-austerity, anti-establishment sentiments.

Boston is a fine example of austerity Britain. In a 2016 report, the think tank Policy Exchange named Boston the least integrated place in the country, which is not surprising when you consider that I could not find a single government-funded integration programme – this is a job that falls to the voluntary sector. The trust behind the local Pilgrim’s hospital is in special measures, the local schools budget has been cut, and the local council did not have the money to fund Christmas lights last time round. A local community leader told me, “We’ve been banging on the door for years saying that we need more funds. But they just didn’t come.” This view is voiced by local Bostonians and immigrants alike.

Residents are willing to draw a connection between immigration and the lack of resources. What appears to be a vote against uncontrolled immigration is more complex than headlines would make it seem.

What is pertinent is that Boston is qualified to speak. A few months back, Nick Clegg presented a post-Brexit analysis for Newsnight on another high-Leave area; Ebbw Valley in South Wales. In that piece, he gathered that the majority reason for voting Leave was immigration despite only 2% of the local population being foreign-born. He put it down to the fear of immigration, rather than immigration itself. It was a response driven by perception rather than reality.

For Boston, it is a reality. It is a town that speaks from experience and is qualified to talk about the merits and demerits of immigration and the impact of budget cuts. It is for this reason that when Boston speaks, by voting 76% to Leave, Westminster must listen.

The 2015 Conservative campaign focused on economic competence with austerity at its core, and secured Cameron / Osborne a majority government. Merely two years later, the programme is hurting the Conservatives. The general election campaign saw the anti-austerity narrative adopt many guises; the resurgent youth vote, a tiring of the stability agenda versus change agenda, and public sector worker weariness.

Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, best summarised the cuts fatigue after he lost his Croydon Central seat; “There’s a conversation I particularly remember with a teacher, who had voted for me in 2010 and 2015, and said: ‘You know, I understood the need for a pay freeze for a few years to deal with the deficit but you’re now asking that to go on – potentially for ten or eleven years and that’s too much.’” The public-government austerity pact was always time-limited.

Soundings from Theresa May’s reconciliation with her party suggest that austerity’s days are numbered. It is unclear what this means in practice, but it demonstrates an awareness within the Conservative party that the Corbyn surge was in large part a consequence of the austerity programme.

The change in narrative appeared sudden, coinciding with the release of Labour’s higher-spend manifesto. However, anti-austerity rumblings could be heard in Boston’s markets and pubs long before then. The clues were there – it should have been no surprise to Westminster that a change in the narrative was imminent.

Photos: Boston and surrounds

Boston & Skegness: A view from the campaign

Context

  • Conservatives have held Boston & Skegness since the constituency was created in 1997
  • Newly-elected Matt Warman won a 4,300 majority in the 2015 General Election
  • However, UKIP surged 24%, which pushed Labour into a distant third place
  • Boston’s status as the UK’s “Brexit heartland” – following a 76% Leave vote – has attracted UKIP leader Paul Nuttall to run as a candidate.

A View from the Campaign

Paul Nuttall appears to have given up hope of success. He has visited the constituency only twice during the campaign and failed to turn up to planned local radio appearances. Many predicted that he would pull out of the race following a disastrous showing in May’s local council elections in which UKIP lost all 13 of its Lincolnshire seats.

Nuttall’s decision to stand in Boston and Skegness has been met with widespread cynicism by the electorate, viewed by many as a case of Brexit opportunism. Even the UKIP candidate for neighbouring constituency Louth and Horncastle, Jonathan Noble, echoed this sentiment, “People like a local candidate and he’s effectively been parachuted in, so that will probably not be very well received. The fact he has a Liverpool accent probably doesn’t help.” Noble added, “If UKIP had picked a credible local candidate, someone with genuine ties to the constituency, that lived here and worked here, it would have gone better.”

Asked how constituents viewed Nuttall’s decision to stand, Conservative candidate Matt Warman told me, “I suppose I have to thank Sophy Ridge [the Sky News presenter].” He was referring to the car-crash interview in which Nuttall was unable to identify Boston from a series of images of UK market towns. This is the first thing many constituents mention when asked about Nuttall.

The UKIP ground effort has also left much to be desired. There is no campaign headquarters or evidence of UKIP activists putting the hard graft required in an election campaign. A party member acknowledged, “I remember campaigning at the last general election, there were very few people out there doing the footwork.” Signs of support are scattered around town in the form of campaign posters in front gardens, however the contact number does not work. Although Boston and Skegness is a target seat, it is clear that UKIP is a party with diminished funds which lacks a sophisticated grassroots operation.

Party infighting is rife and has led to numerous defections. Brian Rush, the newly-appointed Mayor of Boston, resigned from UKIP merely two weeks into the role. Labour councillors have taken to Twitter in jest, “Rumours of a new political party in Boston called UQUIT – for all those councillors that have left UKIP.” The stream of negative headlines denotes a party in disarray, which has been detected by voters who see little point in voting UKIP this time round.

Despite the recent relegation of Theresa May’s “strong and stable” rhetoric, the presidentialisation of the national campaign has encouraged Boston and Skegness voters to consider this election as a straight May vs. Corbyn decision. For an electorate with Brexit at the forefront of its mind, most trust May over Corbyn to deal with the negotiation process. One man, who described himself as a Labour-voting socialist, was clear that he will vote for Theresa May on 8 June.

Voters often speak of Theresa May rather than the Conservative Party, which I sense is a way to rationalise a first-time Tory vote in the minds of non-traditional Tory voters. It is no accident that Matt Warman’s campaign literature relegates “Conservative” references in favour of a large image of Warman and May as its centrepiece. Besides the transfer of the UKIP vote to the Conservatives, there is a sense that the traditional working-class Labour vote is tending the same way.

However, Warman is conscious that the UK’s highest Leave area is not a natural home for a Remain MP. In a Boston Market canvassing session, an angry voter accused Warman of being a “brown-nosed careerist” given his decision to vote Remain under Cameron, followed by his support for May’s “hard” Brexit agenda. During the campaign, Warman has been keen to stress that his was a 51%-49% decision to Remain. Notwithstanding this, Conservative activists, and Warman himself, appear confident about their prospects on 8 June, but repeated the need to guard against complacency. May’s so-called “dementia tax” has removed any risk of complacency.

The Conservatives will benefit from the lack of serious opposition in the area. Labour, historically Boston and Skegness’ second party before the rise of UKIP in the 2015 General Election, has opted to field Paul Kenny for a fourth time. An ardent Corbynite, Kenny’s task is a tough one: to persuade a predominantly rural constituency to adopt Labour’s left-of-centre manifesto and leadership team. UKIP is in rapid decline. Other parties are seldom mentioned.

It is hard to look past a sizeable increase in the Conservative majority come 9 June. Indeed, as one candidate said, “you could paint a donkey blue and it would be voted in around here.”