Former chief executive of Bradford City Council, Tony Reeves, on why the Northern Powerhouse must maintain its focus on a handful of strategically important pan-regional projects
Is the Northern Powerhouse more than just a banner?
I think it is [something] real. It is a genuine attempt to develop a programme capable of achieving sustained growth across the North to address the productivity gap and contribute more to UK PLC. However I don’t think anyone has full worked out the agenda yet and there is a real danger that it drifts into a catch-all title for every publicly funded programme in the North.
What are its biggest hurdles?
The Northern Powerhouse should be a small number of strategic interventions which are best focussed on a pan-regional geography. Things which are capable of being delivered effectively at a sub/city regional level should not form part of the Northern Powerhouse. Northern connectivity clearly fits as would higher level skills, research and design and knowledge transfer involving collaboration between universities and industry at a pan regional level. This is particularly the case where the opportunity draws on the collective strength of different parts of the North to create something of genuine international significance or even world leading.
The biggest challenges will be reaching a political consensus around the priorities and ensuring that transport and digital enhancements will connect people to the key opportunities rather than trying to engineer the opportunities into suboptimal locations.
A further challenge will be to avoid mission creep so that the focus remains on the right, small number of interventions capable of creating the conditions for at scale investment and growth. Ensuring industry and business buy in and influence is also key in my view.
In terms of placemaking, there isn’t currently a consensus around the fact that the North isn’t, and never will be, a homogenous place. It is the big cities which will be the key growth engines. These, together with the ports and airports will be the key places for primary investment with supply chain opportunities spreading into the crucial hinterland around our cities. The cities should work together to maximise the potential and intensity of economic activity in each place and this will involve approaches to urban design and planning. Delivery of the place agenda should, in my view be a local or sub regional activity as a remote governance model does not deliver great places which engage and inspire local people.
Has there been enough focus on cultural and knowledge aspects?
Building a knowledge economy in the North is the central purpose of the Northern Powerhouse without which there will be no prospect of closing the productivity gap. As for the role of culture, it is a critical element in great place making and will be a significant element in the growth strategy for many places in the North.
My view is that while there may be the case for collaboration to put on world class events, festivals etc in the main, the cultural agenda which should be distinctive to each place is best run at a more local level. Success will only be secured with the optimal alignment of local, regional and pan regional activity.
Would improvements be happening across the North without the Northern Powerhouse banner?
The history of pan-northern collaboration is patchy at best and we need to be honest about that. There is no guarantee of success with the Northern Powerhouse backed by government support.
Without it aligning the political objectives of the different parts of the North, let alone securing the buy-in of business, higher education etc - and sustaining it over the long-term sufficiently to make the step changes needed - would be much more difficult.
Tony Reeves is the local government advisory partner at Deloitte