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Nick Johnson: 'The Northern Powerhouse is a brand - and not a useful one'

OMA Factory
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Former deputy chief executive of Urban Splash Nick Johnson explains why he is sceptical of Northern Powerhouse propaganda

Is the Northern Powerhouse real?

No, it’s a brand - and not a particularly useful one. It’s a diversion tactic just like HS2, designed to placate the people and the politicians of the North. Future pledges look eminently spinable together with a few positive trade-offs for councils which look and act like they mean business, such as Manchester.

So what should it be? And what are its biggest challenges?

What it should be is an attempt to facilitate, encourage and foster proud, strong, confident local councils with quality elected members who care about the places in which they live - distinctly not career politicians. People who have the gravitas, pragmatism and strength to stand up to process and get things done with a degree of autonomy and control.

If that sounds a little like the mayoral path, then that’s OK. But there needs to be quality people spearheading that process. Sadly all that’s an anathema to contemporary governance and European policy wonks.

Turn the clock back half a century or more and each ‘place’ oozed civic pride, celebrated their separate identities and seemed to do a pretty good job when trusted to get on with it. If that’s what DevoMax looked like it might start to make real sense.

’Architecture and planning have had their own role to play in perpetuating failure to craft proper places’

Has there been enough emphasis yet on design and placemaking across the Northern Powerhouse?

No, precisely for the reasons stated above. Policy doesn’t make ‘place’ - people do. We have to allow people to craft their places with ambition, enterprise and opportunity. Peter Saville always used to say to me that people get the city they deserve. You can replace city with any scale of ‘place’ - town, village etc. What Peter was saying was that if people are prepared to put up with mediocrity then that will perpetuate mediocrity. If however there’s a combination of collective intelligence, determination, endeavour and a willingness to be tenacious enough to challenge the systems that suffocates all those qualities, then we can once again begin to influence our ‘places’. Architecture and planning have had their own role to play in perpetuating failure to craft proper places.

Has there been enough focus on the cultural and knowledge aspects of the initiative?

Well you might look at the Factory initiative in Manchester (pictured top, designed by OMA) which the government is funding and think ‘yes’, they’re still in the game. But the reality is that Manchester is better than most at delivery and is generally trusted to get on with things responsibly.

The truth is that Factory was part of the trade-off deal to get Manchester to toe the line and agree to have an elected mayor. Speak to most people involved in the administration of the arts world outside London and you get some clarity about the lack of importance that’s now placed on culture.

Would the improvements across the North be happening anyway without any new branding?

I’m very anti-brand and anti-branding. We should all be. Instead our eyes glaze over as the spin machines create the propaganda and the designers give us visual references that they know will hook us in. What we need to concentrate on is content. If there was a belief in opportunity and reward - both financial and critical - that something special can be created outside of London, then that would do more to transform the fortunes of Not London more than any hollow imagery, identity and strapline.

What is different about how the government is backing the Powerhouse compared to, say, the regional development authorities under Labour?

The government isn’t putting its money where its mouth is. 

Nick Johnson is ‘head honcho’ at Market Operations, Altrincham Market


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