The Northern Powerhouse: A cruel deception?

By February 12, 2016



Photo credit: flickr user ‘altogetherfool’

In 2014 on the 2nd of December, Chancellor George Osbourne delivered a speech in Manchester’s Whitehall Gallery, highlighting the divide between the North and South of England, British politics’ ultimate unsolved puzzle. The Northern Powerhouse aims to bridge the gap between the South East and the North and to attract investment from businesses into Northern cities and towns. Over time there has been a major North-South economic imbalance. Statistics outlined the inequalities through government spending on culture and the arts. In London the spending amounted to £69 per resident in 2012-13, compared with £4.60 per person elsewhere in England. Needless to say, the unfair distribution of government spending has an extremely negative impact on the accessibility of the arts in areas outside of London, and is having a detrimental effect on individual’s ability to pursue a career in the cultural sector anywhere outside of London, where the living cost is renowned for its ridiculously extortionate prices.

The key proposed aims of the Northern Powerhouse can be identified in the 2015 report written by Ed Cox and Jack Hunter, Full Steam Ahead, Business Attitudes towards The Northern Powerhouse. Institute for Public Policy Research. The main aims include a huge investment into the transport systems, increasing the connectivity and strengthening the North as a unit, to create more jobs in the North to retain graduates who have studied at Universities such as Manchester and Leeds, as well as providing funding for Northern businesses. The Northern Powerhouse has received extremely mixed feedback since Osbourne’s speech. In the short time frame in which the Northern Powerhouse has been proposed, there has already been a vast number of articles and reports written regarding the issue, from a range of perspectives. This level of response demonstrates the importance that this issue holds to the population across the country, not just in the North.

One of the first controversies raised since the proposal is; how exactly can “the North” be defined? Where is the border that separates the North and the South? In Osbourne’s speech, he describes the city centres of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and other Northern Cities as “thriving again”.  There has barely been any discussion of the North East in the proposal of the policy. Newcastle is a similar City in terms of student population and development in comparison to Leeds and Manchester, however there has been little mention of the city in regards to the Northern Powerhouse. The North East falls behind the rest of the country on a depressing stream of statistics, such as household incomes, health and education outcomes and the ability to keep talented young people in the region. However, area such as Middlesborough and Sunderland were not mentioned in Osbourne’s speech, although there is no denying they are part of the North, and geographically further North than Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool.

Although some have said that the Northern Powerhouse is the first concrete attempt to bridge the gap between London and the rest of the country, other’s feel it is a patronising attempt from the Tories to take the North seriously. One question is what exactly qualifies George Osbourne, London born and educated, to lead a policy in an attempt the “fix” the North. Osbourne is from a privileged upbringing, with access to not only the highest level of education and facilities, but will have no doubt received support and encouragement throughout his education from his family. How can someone from that walk of life have the capacity to fully relate to individuals, who do not only come from deprived backgrounds financially, but also not have had access to cultural capital from through their home-life and understand what it is that needs putting in place to allow them reach their true potential? The arts has been proven to have a massive positive impact educationally, and it is the children from the most deprived areas in the country that need the investment, this clearly isn’t a priority in Osbourne’s pet project. Then again, with the recent announcement of the maintenance grants cuts, social mobility has never really been something the Tory Party have taken particularly seriously.

 In Osbourne’s speech he admits he is not only London born and educated, but also lives in London throughout the week days. He argues that being a London born MP representing a Northern constituency gives him a “very personal perspective on the time-worn debate about north and south”. However, journalists have retorted that the London born Chancellor’s suggestion that a number of Northern cities should collaborate and become one economic assembly is laughable. Osbourne seems to underestimate the rivalries that are between cities such as Newcastle and Sunderland, and seems extremely naïve when he proposes that the north can unite as one.

Osbourne’s speech in Manchester Whitehall Gallery was over a year ago, however the policy still remains vague and there appears to be little of the proposals materialising.

One of the main critiques is the amount of investment into revamping buildings as well as creating new buildings in Manchester, including the pledge for £78m for “The Factory”, a brand new cultural hub as well as the launch of the £25m new multi-arts centre “Home” in April both in Manchester. This may appear to have created a large number of jobs in the city, however previously paid in the Whitworth Gallery are now been filled by volunteers. Individuals are aware of how competitive a career in the arts is, meaning institutes are able to take advantage of individuals desperate to gain more experience. Subsequently, this proves the trend in London is mirrored in Manchester, as the arts remain for the elite in society.

Large investment in new buildings in England has already occurred. For example, the London 2012 Olympic Games saw a large amount of money spent on the venues alone, costing £1.106bn, including £428m spent building the Olympic stadium. Many of them now sit un-used. There should not be investment purely in building physical space, rather the focus should be on the development of actual artists and circulating their work. With the amount of investment currently purely in Manchester, there is potential for become the centre of the North, creating a gravitational pull attracting all the investment and business, resulting in the areas in the north which truly need revamping and developing to become even more neglected.

It is appears the only tangible results since Osbourne’s policy have been completely negative for the North. Bradford’s infamous National Media Museum has faced a large amount of cuts and lost one of their largest assests, The Royal Photography Society collection, which has now been moved to the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London. Bradford is a City that has extremely benefited from the National Media Museum and the cuts will have a detrimental effect on the residents, as well as on the schools in the area. One of the key aims to invest in the transport of the North has now been undermined completely following an announcement from the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, that the upgrade of the York-Manchester Pennine route will now be postponed. To add insult to injury, there has been a closure the Northern Powerhouse department in Sheffield, resulting in a relocation of 247 jobs from Sheffield to London.

Osbourne states in his speech in 2014 that he wants to escape “clichés” when tackling the imbalance between the North and the South. However, the whole concept of the policy since his “grand” speech in Whitehall Gallery has frankly become the epitome of a cliché. The initial scepticism surrounding the policy was unsurprisingly correct, however the alarming pace of the destruction the policy has had on the North already been is shocking and a insulting. The Northern Powerhouse Policy, is something that if carried out correctly, could over time benefit the North. There needs to be less focus on cities which are already thriving, such as Manchester and Leeds, and far more work on areas which are truly deprived. However, it will be impossible for it to be taken seriously whilst George Osbourne is the poster boy.