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News feature: Is the Northern Powerhouse real or just clever branding?

Northern Powerhouse Graph   v2

George Osborne’s vision of a Northern Powerhouse has been met with scepticism by some, but others say it is boosting investment and helping rebalance a regionally skewed economy. Richard Waite reports

In the summer of 2014 George Osborne invented a new phrase: the Northern Powerhouse.

The chancellor dreamt of ‘a collection of northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that combined they could take on the world’. This unified pan-Pennine dynamo, he claimed, would become super-connected through HS2 (from London), HS3 (the £6 billion Manchester to Leeds rail upgrade to follow) and a new 30-mile tunnel under the moors between Sheffield and Manchester.

A Map of the North and potential rail network upgrades taking place there

Northern Powerhouse Map

He would give its cities – Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Hull, York, Newcastle, Sunderland and Manchester – more powers through directly elected mayors. He would promote the region’s universities and science institutions to kickstart an innovation revolution. He would throw his weight behind entrepreneur-attracting cultural hubs.

In the two years since its birth, the Northern Powerhouse banner has gained significant traction, both in the UK and overseas. Late last month 500 Chinese investors filled hotel conference suites in Hong Kong attracted by this oomph-filled phrase.

And the offer is potentially very tantalising. The Financial Times recently reported that the North’s economic output by gross value added was £304 billion in 2014 – the 10th largest economy in Europe if it were a country.

But is there more to the Northern Powerhouse than Osborne’s come-and-give –us-your-money banner waving? Has the government actually put its money where its mouth is in its attempts to rebalance an economy skewed towards London and the South East? There are many who remain unconvinced.

Proposed new HS2 terminal, south of the existing Leeds station

Proposed new HS2 terminal, south of the existing Leeds station

Proposed new HS2 terminal, south of the existing Leeds station

Speaking to the Daily Mirror, shadow communities secretary Jon Trickett moaned that half of the major projects due to be built in the region over the next five years were announced before the ‘Northern Powersham’ was born. These included the Northern Hub rail network improvements and electrification programme – a scheme that first emerged in 2009. Trickett added that several had even started under the previous Labour government.

The newspaper went on to claim that, since the Northern Powerhouse project was unveiled, just £402 million of new cash had been pledged to the region. Conversely, according to urban local authority network SIGOMA, nearly £4 billion has been slashed from northern councils’ budgets since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

‘It gives a confidence to those scurrying north to invest. We are seeing a large influx of London money’

Sceptics also point to the recent decision by the government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to close its office in Sheffield by 2018 with some posts being transferred to London.

‘The Northern Powerhouse is either a real attempt at potentially the largest move towards proper devolution I’ve witnessed in my lifetime,’ says Tom Bloxham, chairman of North-West-based developer Urban Splash, ‘or a cynical bid by George Osborne to get re-elected in his northern constituency. It’s probably both.’

Bloxham’s former business partner Nick Johnson – now the self-styled head honcho at Altrincham Market – goes further. For him it is merely an empty slogan.

‘The Northern Powerhouse is a brand, and not a particularly useful one,’ he says. ‘It’s a diversion tactic just like HS2, designed to placate the people and the politicians of the North.

‘Future pledges seem eminently spinnable with a few positive trade-offs for councils that look and act like they mean business, such as Manchester.’

However the decision by the rival local authorities around Birmingham to belatedly come up with their own tagline late last year – the Midlands Engine – shows that the Northern Powerhouse drum-banging is being noticed.

Nor is the creation of a recognisable and sellable brand in itself unwelcome. Frances Chaplin, partner and head of PRP’s Manchester office says: ‘The Northern Powerhouse has a positive meaning for us. Whether there is anything real about the concept or not, it is a useful device to get people thinking about life and opportunity beyond the Watford gap.

‘Its biggest challenge will be to be seen to deliver rather than just being a talking shop. [Yet] just on the level of publicity that’s being generated, my view is that it is delivering so far.’

A number of major southern practices have already spied opportunities for new work in the region, including Bennetts Associates, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Hawkins\Brown, which have all recently opened offices in Manchester. Even Falconer Chester Hall Architects from nearby Liverpool has set up a Mancunian outpost.  

Speaking about the draw of the Northern Powerhouse tagline, Katie Tonkinson, the head of Hawkins\Brown’s Manchester outfit says: ‘Do I use the phrase myself? No. But it does give a confidence to both our own investment in Manchester and to those scurrying north to invest. We are seeing a large influx of London money from [our clients] down south.’

This is a sentiment shared by Paul Marsh, head of projects and finance at UKTI, the Regeneration and Investment Organisation (RIO), who has been selling the opportunities in the powerhouse to moneymen from Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Canada.

Museum of Liverpool by Danish architect 3XN

Museum of Liverpool by Danish architect 3XN and AEW

‘If you say to somebody in China, that the Northern Powerhouse is the same size as Beijing – that means something to them – instantly,’ he says.

‘It is the first step of you communicating an individual offer. Bradford, for instance, may find it quite difficult to create its own brand around the world. But being part of the Northern Powerhouse it is instantly branded as something.  

‘That’s the power it has got. Architects are intelligent technical people and they want to get into the granular level quickly. But they don’t need to at this point.’

If we can create a single market of 10 million people, we have a scale where we can start to balance out London

The idea of a stronger-together coalition of northern cities is not new. In early 2004 the three northern regional development agencies Northwest Development Agency, One NorthEast and Yorkshire Forward, came up with the Northern Way – a 20-year vision for the region backed by then deputy prime minister John Prescott.  

But this was consigned to the scrap heap in 2011 when the development agencies were abolished.

Will Alsop came up with his own Grand Plan in 2005 – an 80 mile-long Super City stretching from Liverpool to Hull.

He recalls: ‘When working for Yorkshire Forward [a decade ago] I recognised the link between all the cities along the M62.

‘But there was no common strategy, and I realised that if they all got together it would be to the benefit of them all. This concept has been reworked by various politicians – so Super City has had an effect.’

He adds: ‘Infrastructure is vitality important for success. But nothing like that is going to happen overnight.’

So what makes this attempt any more likely to succeed than previous attempts?  

The leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, who has already looked at similar city network examples in the Netherlands (Randstad) and in Germany (Ruhr valley) says: ‘The notion of a pan-northern [alliance] has been around for a long time. What makes it different now is that there is a coherent economic logic. If we can create a community – effectively a single market of 10 million people – we have a scale where we can start to balance out London.   

Value of project starts by sector in London and the North from 2013-2015
Source: Glenigan

Northern Powerhouse Graph2


‘But it is important to understand that this is not a quick fix. If we invest in the right way and in the right things we are going to see the benefit by 2025.’

And whatever the critics are saying, real things are happening. The government has handed £50 million to the two-year-old organisation Transport for the North (TfN) – a potential linchpin of the region’s long-term success.

By next March the body will have produced a ‘prioritised’ Northern Transport Strategy, which will include proposals on how to halve the time it takes to travel between the major cities.

TfN’s chief executive David Brown admits it has a key role ‘in realising the shift from ideology to reality for the Northern Powerhouse’.

He says: ‘Improving transport alone won’t be enough and needs to be supported by investment in skills and innovation. However we have a crucial enabling role to play in planning the connectivity that will support the Northern Powerhouse.’

He adds: ‘When we have this infrastructure plan in place, with a pipeline of schemes to deliver over 5, 10 or 15 years, it gives greater certainty of opportunities across all industries and professions, including architects and planners.’

OMA Factory

OMA Factory

There has also been central government support – at different scales – for cultural schemes in the North. In the last budget the chancellor pledged £1 million to create a new home for the S1 Artspace gallery in Sheffield’s Park Hill, having given Manchester a whopping £75 million for the city’s new flexible art space – the Factory – designed by OMA (pictured above).

This massive investment in Manchester shows how cleverly the city has positioned itself both regionally and nationally. In terms of its vision, momentum and devolution journey, it is years ahead of the other cities – and city regions – in the Northern Powerhouse.   

Tim Groom of Manchester-based Tim Groom Architects says: ‘Other cities are playing catch up. Manchester has put huge ambitions and efforts in over a long period of time and it’s only right that it reaps the rewards first.

‘Having said that, the other cities can learn from us and that can only make the Northern Powerhouse stronger.’

Manchester stalwarts Rachel Haugh and Ian Simpson of SimpsonHaugh and Partners go further. ‘There’s a danger that any investment is pepper-potted across too wide an area and becomes diluted and ineffective,’ they say. ‘We should be referring to this initiative as “Manchester and the Northern Powerhouse” – it’s a much more clearly understood, and appropriate, title.’

Unsurprisingly that view is not shared by everyone. Many believe there has been too much focus on Manchester and to a lesser extent Leeds, both of which will get super-fast links to London under the £80 billion HS2 programme.  

Northern Powerhouse Graph

Earlier this year, think tank ResPublica warned that places such as Liverpool would be left behind if they weren’t included in the second phase of HS2 beyond Birmingham.

Mark Henderson, a director at Leeds-based Brewster Bye Architects, admits: ‘There are lots of other major towns and cities in the North that need to be brought into the fold. Although, it’s inevitable that the North’s largest cities will take a lot of the limelight, it has to be balanced, through carefully managed inward finance, or else it could end up being damaging for some areas.’  

Leeds has already seen something of a resurgence in recent years following the severe downturn that saw scores of schemes shelved almost a decade ago.

Hammerson’s high-end city-centre shopping centre – the Acme-designed Victoria Gate project – is nearing completion, and late last year Burberry announced it was creating a major new factory around Holbeck’s Temple Works, designed by Stanton Williams.    

ACME's Victoria Gate scheme in Leeds

ACME’s Victoria Gate scheme in Leeds

Source: Martin Priestley

Acme’s Victoria Gate scheme in Leeds is due to complete later this year

According to the latest figures from industry tracker Glenigan, the value of schemes starting on site last year in the Northern Powerhouse region hit £9.33 billion – higher than the total of those beginning construction in London, and marking three years of steady growth.   

Data from the RIBA’s monthly Future Trends survey also shows that practices in the North are increasingly optimistic in comparison with their southern counterparts (see graphs on previous page).    

But wouldn’t the improvements across the North be happening anyway without any new uber-branding?

‘To a certain extent they would,’ says Adam Hall, managing director at Falconer Chester Hall. ‘In the sectors we operate in – hotels, leisure, PRS, student accommodation – the market is good at the moment and I don’t think it’s because of the Northern Powerhouse label.

‘However, what it has done already is add another positive layer – even if it’s subliminal – to the thinking of investors who may be looking to make a decision. They turn their magazine or newspaper page over and see another Northern Powerhouse story and think it’s something they should be a part of.’

The Northern Powerhouse, it seems, has legs. All the indicators point to the economic stars aligning.

Architects can and should capitalise on this impetus, however this growing rush to the North may have actually come about.

Bloxham concludes: ‘While the emphasis is on big infrastructure projects, now is the time for cities to look at what would make a big difference, long-term, in their area.

‘There is an opportunity here for architects to work with cities and their chief executives to look at these schemes. For instance how can other cities create the equivalent of Manchester’s Northern Quarter?’

With placemaking and design barely on the radar, this is the moment for the profession to make its voice heard above the mounting noise of the powerhouse hubbub.

Northern Powerhouse projects supported in this year’s budget

• North of England rail enhancements

• Mersey Gateway Bridge

• Smart Motorway projects on M62, M1 and M6

• Road improvements to A5036 to Port of Liverpool

• A1 North improvements

• A160/A180 Port of Immingham road improvement

• Sunderland New Wear Crossing

• Leeds New Generation Transport – a modern trolleybus network for the city

• Carrington gas-fired power station

• Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, Manchester

• Teesside and Lynemouth biomass plants

• Manchester Airport investment

• Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme

• Siemens Green Port Hull


Newcastle: Lee McLaughlin, partner, FaulknerBrowns

We often wonder what’s really beneath the surface of the Northern Powerhouse banner. The momentum seems real and, when you think about what it’s trying to do, the scale of investment and impetus on the connectivity elements first and foremost makes sense. Once this starts to happen, then it could be very real.  

Sustaining a new position for the North – once the economic powerhouse of Britain – in a world becoming driven by megacities of more than 10 million people is perhaps what’s most challenging. We do a lot of work in Holland, and picturing the North as some sort of Randstad system – a chain of exceptionally well-connected adjacent cities – is quite interesting. Managing overdevelopment within each city while ensuring that the cities can support huge economic strength and keep the cultural, historic and quality of life opportunities that the North holds will be key. Retaining values and identity is the interesting bit.

The Northern Powerhouse label hasn’t explicitly impacted on our workload. We tend to export a lot of what we do. That said, it does raise the question of the recent opportunities we have been a part of. Would Citygrove have looked to Newcastle and us for our 26-storey resi tower at Rutherford Street? Would we have been invited by Argent to work on the ambitious Airport City project in Manchester? And would we have just submitted a planning application at the scale we have done for Milburngate in Durham? Maybe, though, it is more of a trend of investment naturally moving beyond the South East as things become more and more competitive there.

Bradford: Kersten England, chief executive, Bradford Metropolitan District Council

The Northern Powerhouse has to be about connecting and unlocking the full productive potential of the entire north of England. If we are going to rebalance the UK economy we have to accelerate economic growth in the major conurbations of the North, and this means that Bradford and the Leeds City Region will be central to its success. Without their active involvement, recognition of their pivotal role in the economy and investment in their local and regional infrastructure, the Northern Powerhouse cannot be delivered.

There are challenges and there is a danger that it could languish as an initiative without substance. Significant investment, meaningful devolution and mature civic leadership will be key to its success.

Would the improvements across the North be happening anyway without any new branding? Yes. Arguably the devolution genie was out of the bottle before the development of the Northern Powerhouse; the Northern city regions and their constituent authorities have been increasing collaboration and working strategically together to facilitate growth for some time.  

But the key difference [between the Northern Powerhouse and the Regional Development Agencies] is that the agencies centred on nine regions without sufficient focus on the economic relationships between them. Northern Powerhouse is shifting the focus and the emphasis on east-west connectivity is significant.

Manchester: Mark Barker, director, tp bennett

The Northern Powerhouse is a useful banner but this is not a negative. It is now widely recognised, and most people understand what it means. However, there are still those who associate the word ‘northern’ with the heavy industry once associated with the North. We’ve moved a long way since then.

It needs to be a driver for change, but it needs more government backing to do this. The devolution deal is a positive step but it needs to go much further than it has done. It should provide a strong gravitational pull away from London for talented graduates who are becoming increasingly disillusioned with London’s housing and quality of life. Many of the largest and most successful employers in the professional services sector have anticipated this and are expanding their Northern presence as a way of attracting and retaining the best talent. This can become a virtuous circle, which further feeds economic growth in the region.

We opened our first office outside of London in Manchester in 2014. It wasn’t the Northern Powerhouse label that made us decide to open an office in Manchester, but rather what it represents: a commitment to making something greater.

Newcastle: Mark Thompson, managing partner, Ryder Architecture   

The Northern Powerhouse is becoming tangible; certainly the government appears to want to make it real. The term ‘Powerhouse’ is not something I’m keen on, and the constant rebranding and short-term initiatives in current circulation are tiresome. What’s the matter with simply saying ‘northern England’?

The country needs a secondary economic engine to London to provide diversity and resilience. Northern England is uniquely positioned to provide that even if the Northern Powerhouse project itself remains rather loosely defined. It’s not just about one or two core cities but about a significant region providing a range of talents, attributes and character.

So far there’s been lots of talk but no real action. It’s not about branding; it’s about strong collaborative leadership, recognising the strengths and diversity across northern England and the combined economic potential of the core cities and their surrounding areas.

Thinking back to how the North has emerged from past recessions, this one doesn’t feel any different. The ripples from London eventually arrive. So while Manchester basks in the limelight, I’d question how much, if any, of the current upturn in Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool is down to the Northern Powerhouse.

London: Graham Cartledge, chairman, Benoy  

We see the Northern Powerhouse as a real initiative that at the moment is on a journey. As it brings more cities together, it provides a viable alternative to London and attracts opportunities for increased investment from both the UK and overseas.

The primary challenge for the North, and indeed all regions, is to show investors and occupiers that there are great long-term returns beyond the South East; these regions represent good places to do business.

To be considered as a real ‘powerhouse’, the offer should be meaningful in terms of size, value and opportunity.

It is also important to create and maintain dialogue between the cities in order to identify mutually beneficial investment opportunities.

Branding certainly helps but the reinvention of the region has not been overnight.

Manchester: Brendan Dooley, managing director, Dooley Associates (QS)  

While still in its infancy, the Northern Powerhouse is for me both a brand for macro-marketing and a forum from which the northern towns and cities can actually plan their futures in support of each other rather than in competition.

In the last two decades the world has become much smaller for businesses and consumers alike, and therefore competing on a global stage is more important than between counties.

Manchester will rightly remain as the beacon due to the advances and plans already in progress and its positioning as a place where business can be done. What I would like to see is more understanding of the unique selling points of the other cities and how they interact rather than compete.

Merseyside: Richard Mawdsley, director of development for Wirral Waters at Peel Holdings

The biggest challenge for the Northern Powerhouse is delivery. The initiative requires a clear strategy and investment plan, ambitious growth targets, a greater commitment to invest and supportive growth policies.

It also requires stronger ‘joint working’ between the public, private and third sectors.

Genuine collaboration is key. We work in partnership with a wide range of organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors to help drive growth and innovation across many sectors in different parts of the North. We want to explore further - with all our current and future partners - our contribution to delivery in the Northern Powerhouse.

Has there been enough emphasis yet on design and placemaking? Well, quality of place amplifies productivity. This involves a focus on placemaking - creating the conditions out of which a desirable place emerges.

Connectivity joined with a higher environmental offer has the potential to create sustainable, liveable, heathier and more productive places that attract investment and deliver more in terms of jobs and societal benefits.

Successful places emerging where LEPs and local authorities embrace ‘quality of place’ as a point of difference - supported often by proactive local nature partnerships e.g. Nature Connected and Mersey Forest.

The Atlantic Gateway area – part of the Northern Powerhouse - has the potential to consider the role of place, environment and ‘green infrastructure’ as drivers of sustainable growth due to its approach at regional scale.

At project level, setting the benchmark for good design is happening in some of our strategic projects such as Wirral Waters where the first building Peel delivered – the new Wirral Metropolitan Construction College – recently secured a regional RIBA Architectural Award.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Roche

    The North has always been a powerhouse, it is the birthplace of the industrial revolution, and in 1653 Manchester was to open the world's first public library - Chethams. It still exists, and it's where Marx and Engels formulated ideas which were to form the Communist Manifesto. It is economically, politically and culturally significant both to the UK and the wider world. If George Osborne's slogan helps him sell the North as a UK asset, then it is surely better than the UK Government sitting on their assets.

    Chris Roche Founder 11.04

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  • The Northern Powerhouse is a fine name for what should be a fine project and prospect for all Northern cities and surrounding towns. Many industries have locations and suppliers across the region and therefore mutual benefits to these and importantly their populations must emanate.

    To put one city up-front ie: Manchester, as if the rest follow is not useful nor acceptable. My industry, textiles, is well served across the M62 corridor and has some of the best manufacturers and associated businesses in the world. More is to come via the current Alliance project.

    Any hint of local or regional rivalry will damage the overall Northern Powerhouse strategy and thus weaken it's potential.Yes, Manchester and Leeds are appropriate and essential hubs from which to reach to other cities and towns with the scale of this being an attraction to overseas investment.

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