If George Osborne wants to support the Northern Powerhouse, he should run for mayor of Manchester

Well, that worked out well: George Osborne in Manchester, January 2015. Image: Getty.

Manufacturers of high viz jackets and other personal protective equipment, rejoice: George Osborne is back – and he's worried.

Two months after the former chancellor was unceremoniously – one might almost say gleefully – fired by Theresa May, Osborne popped up on this morning's Today Programme to fret about his beloved Northern Powerhouse. Speaking in code so obscure it could defeat the Enigma machine, he said there had been a "little bit of a wobble" about whether May's government was "still committed to the concept".

Luckily, though, George is on hand to sort things out. He's launching a new think tank, the "Northern Powerhouse Partnership", which he has generously agreed to chair. The body will bring together political and business leaders from across the north, and campaign for greater devolution and improve transport links. It will do, in other words, most of the things Osborne wanted the Northern Powerhouse to do when in government, with the one minor difference that he’s now outside it.

The left has often questioned Osborne's commitment to the north. His austerity budgets, by an odd coincidence, tended to fall disproportionately heavily on regions that voted Labour, a group including almost all the northern cities. And some in the opposition have campaigned against devolution, on the grounds it was just a way of putting Labour councils on the hook for Tory cuts.

For some, the cynicism runs yet deeper. Many on the left have sneered at the idea a Conservative could even care about a region of the country his party had effectively left to rot in the eighties. Osborne loved Thatcher; Thatcher hated the north; ergo, Osborne must hate the north, too.


I've never quite bought this. It always seemed to me that there was a very good reason why an ambitious Tory would want to revive the northern economy: rich constituencies are less likely to vote Labour. It’s not a contradiction for Osborne to be sincere about the Northern Powerhouse, yet be cynically trying to undermine Labour, both at the same time.

Now he's out of power, and what do you know, his own political self-interest is aligned with the right thing to do once again. Heading up his new think tank will allow Osborne to keep banging the drum for the north, while also giving him a new powerbase and continued political relevance.

But there’s a danger that this looks a bit, well, half-hearted. Exactly what the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will do is difficult to work out, because it doesn't exist yet – but Britain is not short of think tanks, and why this will be any different remains to be seen.

If Osborne really wants to build his powerhouse, he should stop mucking around and go for the big job: mayor of Greater Manchester.

The king in the north

The Tories are not over flowing with potential candidates in Greater Manchester. Of its 10 boroughs, only one (Trafford) is held by the Tories; just five of the region's 27 MPs are Conservative, and none of them is a household names.

Osborne's constituency (Tatton, in Cheshire) isn't in Greater Manchester – but it does border it, and consist of places well within its orbit. He has as good a claim to the party's nomination as anyone.

More to the point, though, this is his baby. The Northern Powerhouse, city regions, metro mayors – all were Osborne's idea. If he wants to show that he was serious, that this was more than an attempt to wrong-foot Labour, well, here's his chance.

Labour's mayoral candidate Andy Burnham, a man who has never been accused of being overly tactical in his positioning. Image: Getty.

In its early days, the London mayoralty was not taken seriously, and struggled to attract top-flight candidates. But a Manchester mayoral election in which a former chancellor faced off against a former Labour health secretary would show, from the start, that this is a big job for serious people. If Osborne wants the new mayors to be taken seriously, he could do worse than run for the job himself.

I don't believe for a second that Osborne will do this, for the very good reason that he will probably lose: Manchester is a Labour city, and Osborne is not exactly electoral cat nip. (Last March, a YouGov poll found that, after six years as chancellor, just 8 per cent of the British electorate thought he'd be "up to the job of Prime Minister".)

But another hit against Osborne has always been that he treats politics as one big chess game: that he is a man without principal, concerned only with tactical advantage. Fighting a quixotic campaign that he is highly likely to lose might, paradoxically, boost his reputation.

Oh, and he'd probably get to wear a lot of high viz gear on the campaign trail, too.

So, come on George. You want to show you believe in the north and its powerhouse. You want the new metro mayors to be serious political figures. And you want a platform from which you can rebuild your reputation and, what the hell, throw a few rocks at the people who fired you.

How about it?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

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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