City regions aren't enough: it's time for a Council of the North

The Angel of the North, Gateshead. Image: Getty.

This time last year, IPPR North published a report which promoted the then rather unpopular idea that our smaller towns and cities were vital to the kind of economy the north needed to become.

It confronted some of the narrower conceptions of agglomeration and urban growth with emerging evidence of more complex city systems, and it made a case for a Northern Powerhouse that was far more inclusive than had hitherto been promulgated by the then chancellor. Now, with a big shove from Leave voters, thinking about “inclusive growth” is all the rage.

On Friday, IPPR North published a new report – Taking Back Control in the North – which champions another currently unpopular cause: regional governance.

There is a widely-held view that we shouldn’t talk about the structures and institutions of the so-called northern powerhouse. This view is promoted primarily by those who currently hold the reins: city leaders and chief executives, big businesses, government ministers and civil servants. But there is increasing evidence that the northern economy can only flourish when it has the institutional capacity to drive its own industrial strategy: England’s weak sub-national institutions lie at the heart of our severe regional imbalances.

The evidence is best exemplified in the work of Phil McCann, now at the University of Sheffield. To summarise the incredibly detailed analysis laid out in his most recent book, he makes three key points.

First, the UK’s weak long-term productivity is principally a result of the differential effects of globalisation on different parts of the country. There has been a very poor transition of economies outside London from their industrial pasts, while the benefits of globalisation have remained confined to London and its hinterland. For too long the former problem has been masked by the latter success.

As a result, “the UK economy is not only diverging but it is now disconnecting, decoupling and dislocating into two or possibly three quite separate economies”. London has become insulated and isolated from the wider economy, something likely to be exacerbated by the UK’s departure from the EU; while policy and practice has wrongly assumed that the success of the capital city brings aggregate benefits to the rest of the economy.

Second, explanations for poor productivity performance outside London have tended to be weak. There is little evidence of problems being associated with cities being undersized; educational differences are too small to explain the size of the productivity gap.

And if there is a brain-drain, then it is “tiny and also remarkably stable… Human capital and spatial sorting explanations provide few clues as to the UK’s interregional experiences”, as is the case with knowledge spillovers, financial and fiscal linkages too. McCann argues that most of the common diagnoses put forward concerning the North–South divide are actually the symptoms rather than causes of the problem.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially for the north, is the fundamental problem facing the UK economy. There are high levels of regional differentiation and inequality caused by the differential effects of global shocks; but there is insufficient regional autonomy in order to mobilise the appropriate local players, institutions, knowledge and capital in order to develop effective responses.

The core argument is that British regional policy and industrial strategy has stumbled on account of its failure to address issues of subnational governance and its poor awareness of the economic geography of the nation. This argument is all the more compelling when we consider that the two ‘economies’ of the UK which have demonstrated the greatest relative success are London and Scotland, where higher levels of subnational autonomy have enabled them to maximise their local economic advantages, in relation to financial and professional services in the City of London and as regards oil and gas in Scotland.

Brexit and a new approach to Industrial Strategy throw these issues into even sharper relief. With Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan holding regular, if contested, meetings with ministers and officials on Brexit, Northern council leaders wrote to the Prime Minister requesting similar meetings, only to be rebuffed some six months after their letter had been sent. And with devolution in the doldrums, the new industrial strategy green paper relegates any consideration of institutional capacity and leadership to pillar 10; even then, it seems preoccupied with strengthening local enterprise partnerships.

Important as they, are LEPS – even in the most promising city regions – are simply too small to punch their weight in the global economy. In another crucial insight from McCann’s data analysis, he reveals that the UK has a ‘regional’ more than an ‘urban’ problem – and that identifying the appropriate scale for tackling our economic imbalances is key for building institutional capacity.

IPPR North has long argued that the £300bn Northern economy – worth twice that of Scotland – with 15m people and 1m businesses is well-placed to compete with the most successful and similar-sized nations and states. It has a geography that can transcend the most obvious parochial and political rivalries. And, crucially, it provides a viable platform for fiscal devolution at scale. It simply needs stronger leadership and a Great North Plan.


So what then of the institutions that might be needed? Out proposal is for a Council of the North. Made up of the same 19 constituent members of the current Transport for the North board and with similar voting mechanisms it avoids the need for a “new layer of politicians”. It should also have a very clear and narrow remit to develop and implement a Northern industrial strategy acting as a go-between between government, combined authorities and other more functional agencies such as Transport for the North.

But any serious governance requires democratic legitimacy, particularly if it wants to have any role in relation to public finances. Again, transcending political challenges and looking to 21st century models of democratic innovation, we propose a Northern Citizens Assembly, its members chosen by lot, to hold the Council of the North to account and give it some broad direction.

The precise form either of these new institutions might take is worthy of much further debate but, unpopular as it may be, the time has come for England to face up to its governance problems. If we fail to do so all hopes for our new industrial strategy will fall flat.

Ed Cox is director of IPPR North and tweets as @edcox_ippr.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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