Northern England’s great cities are used to competing. So, asks Iain Deas, is it realistic to expect them to work together for the collective good?
George Osborne’s continuing endorsement of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ raises important questions about future local economic development strategy. The idea underpinning the powerhouse proposal is that some of England’s principal Northern cities might work together more closely to help in their economic revitalisation. Increased co-operation, it is argued, would help to accelerate the recovery of cities like Leeds and Manchester. This, it is said, would also improve national competitiveness by creating a series of dynamic urban centres in England’s North, supplementing London’s role as a world city.
Realising this vision of a string of vibrant Northern urban economies involves two mechanisms. One is the now well documented devolution of powers and responsibilities to emerging city-regions like Greater Manchester, and their enhanced autonomy over revenue-raising and spending. The other involves encouraging city-regions to think more about connectivity: both virtually (in terms of joint strategy) and physically (through a new high speed rail link, HS3, and other improvements to infrastructure).
It is tempting to dismiss all of this as predictable pre-election bluster, aimed at denting support for Labour in its electoral heartlands. A cynical view of HS3 might well see it as a sop to the North: a ‘pork barrel’ pre-election concession to critics of the government’s continued emphasis on accommodating growth in and around London. £15.8bn and counting for Crossrail, alongside as yet unformed aspirations for additional runway capacity in London’s airports, suggest this is a perspective with some merit. So too does government’s ongoing struggle to establish a new generation of garden cities and new towns, as it seeks to relieve chronic housing shortages in and around London.
Even the HS2 railway, championed enthusiastically by Northern cities, is likely to benefit London as much as the provinces, as land and labour shortages in the capital’s overheating economy are offset by improved infrastructure and an extended commuting catchment. And there are lots of precedents here: successive governments have embarked – sometimes belatedly and often unconvincingly – on a host of spurious spatial policy adventures in response to past criticisms of their London-centricity.
The economic powerhouse idea, and allied investment in HS3, might well be added to the list of compensatory government wheezes aimed at placating critics in the North. This latest Osbornian innovation is in fact neither new nor innovative. Variants of the economic powerhouse idea have been in evidence for at least the last twenty years. In the 1990s, TransPennine Ltd – led by an ex-academic turned Hebden Bridge property developer – presented the case for investment in rail and road infrastructure as a means of creating a growth corridor along the M62 motorway. This generated interest from the European Commission, resulting in proposals for a North European Trade Axis (NETA), in which the TransPennine corridor would sit as part of a pan-European network of linked cities.
These initial efforts to develop policy ideas for new inter-city growth areas began to take more tangible form as New Labour’s emerging system of regionally-based governance and economic development bedded-in. The NETA vision of the North’s main cities as part of a wider European network of ‘global gateways’ was included in the subsequent regional spatial plans for North West England. Interest in an M62 growth corridor began to crystallise around the Northern Way, launched partially to rebut criticism that national spatial policy aimed to facilitate further growth around London and manage urban decline elsewhere.
Foreshadowing the economic powerhouse idea, the Northern Way envisaged better connected city-regions, notably Leeds and Manchester. Within the North West, the region’s development agency attempted to promote growth and regeneration corridors linking Manchester and Liverpool – an initiative that presaged the current private sector-led Atlantic Gateway.
Most of these efforts have struggled to extend beyond blue sky wishful thinking. The lack of much in the way of concrete progress reflects the difficulty city policymakers have in co-operating in any meaningful way. Cities have been encouraged for at least the last two decades to think and act competitively: to behave in a way analogous to businesses, vying for resources like grant funding, skilled workers and overseas investment.
The idea that cities should behave entrepreneurially is now widely accepted amongst urban policymakers. But there is an obvious tension between the market logic that underpins the behaviour of local policy actors and expectations that cities might subordinate their competitive instincts to collaborative ones. That competitive outlook, probably more than any other single factor, provides most of the explanation for the failure of earlier forays into inter-city collaboration.
If meaningful co-operation is to ensue, then, it probably depends on two things: sufficient national political determination to compel occasionally reluctant cities to sacrifice narrow self-interest and the availability of resources to galvanise or incentivise that process. The latter, in an era of austerity politics, presents a particular problem for a putative Northern Powerhouse, reliant on cities’ willingness to co-operate. Beyond infrastructure, the resources available to city policy actors are meagre and may well dwindle further if austerity intensifies after the 2015 general election.
Encouraging the North’s cities to work together might seem an obvious course of action, but the obstacles confronting a Northern Powerhouse are not easily surmountable.