The obstacles to making the Northern Powerhouse work are huge – and the data proves it

Hello my name is George and for my birthday this year I would like a red, white and blue Northern Powerhouse. Image: Getty Images

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

See that man over there, waving manically while swimming around in a pool of cash? No, not Tony, the other one. George Osborne. Remember him?

The once-chancellor and Chief Machiavel of Westminster is still around, and is now at the reins of a think-tank founded to promote the Northern Powerhouse and work with businesses and investors to lobby for its execution.

Sadly, the political will to implement the policy amongst those with any actual power – read; not George Osborne – seems to be fairly close to nil. We’ve heard plenty of Brexit means Brexit, but when was the last time you heard Northern Powerhouse means Northern Powerhouse, huh? Yeah. Didn’t think so.


Part of the problem, of course, is that such a vast undertaking as transforming a vast number of the country’s cities involves various strands of thought. As much as it pains me to say it, you can’t just throw money at a couple of infrastructure projects and hope that everything magically sorts itself out. It’d be a start, but the problems that make the Northern Powerhouse project both so necessary and so challenging are far more varied and numbered. And here’s where the data can come in handy as a quick way of running through these issues.

The simplest way to look at all of these city metrics is with a national map. Each individual dot represents a city, and the colour of the dot varies according to the level of the metric the map is set to show. And for the sake of avoiding arguments further down the line, my definition of the cities covered by the Northern Powerhouse and also covered by the Centre for Cities’ data runs as follows: Blackpool, Preston, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley, Doncaster, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Manchester, Wigan, Warrington, and Liverpool.  As they say on the interwebs, don’t @ me.

Obviously, economic foundations are important here, and warning first: many, many maps follow.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

A splurge of green around the Northern Powerhouse area shows that the claimant count for unemployment benefit, taken from data in November 2016 – the most recent month available, is higher than in other areas of the country.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

You can see the same problem another way. The welfare spend per capita, measured in 2014, is similarly high in the area – though not quite as dramatically as the claimant count.

Clearly, employment is somewhat more of an issue here than elsewhere in the country. And much of that is likely to come from longer-term issues than just ploughing money in.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

The working age population with no formal qualifications, with data from 2014, tends to tick up a fair amount of green dots across the Northern Powerhouse belt. But it’s clearly not just that the labour force isn’t necessarily qualified enough to take on the kind of digital age start-up quango jobs that power places like the Silicon Fen and the Silicon Roundabout and anywhere else you can shove Silicon in front of.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

The level of people born outside the UK also suggests that the employment market doesn’t support enough capacity to encourage and foster immigration – whereby foreign workers fill gaps in the market that the local population can’t or won’t do.

But there are some more alternative ways of looking at the Northern Powerhouse. Through, say, broadband.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

A map of superfast broadband from 2015 shows a clear glut in the South East, whilst the Northern Powerhouse area is speckled with yellow dots, indicating poorer coverage. And that infrastructure matters – it encourages businesses to set up shop, makes operations quicker and more efficient, and generally makes stuff happen.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

Similarly, looking at the number of patents granted per 100,000 people in 2014 shows that the hothouses of innovation tend to be further south. Or in Aberdeen. Again, a smattering of yellow dots indicates that fewer patents per capita come from cities in the northern belt.

And finally, for those avid readers who go home deeply disappointed unless there’s at least a cursory mention of public transport in a CityMetric article, here’s this.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

The national picture of the proportion of people who commute by ‘private vehicle’ as per 2011 data – aka, mostly just driving your car but also hypothetically taxis – shows a glut of green dots in the northern areas.

And why does that matter? Almost every other way of getting to work is more conducive to working. Walking or cycling to work gives you a perky burst of fresh air, enabling a peachy start to the day, whilst travelling by public transport gives you crucial downtime where your brain can switch off, listen to music, potentially have a nap, and generally free up more concentration time for the bit where you actually do your job. Whereas when you drive, you’re sitting hacked-off in a metal box in a traffic jam, forced to concentrate to make sure you don’t – you know – crash.

The problem is that when George Osborne launched the whole Northern Powerhouse back in the land before time, he essentially just meant let’s do some economics and try and make things better. The only problem with that is that it’s incredibly complicated. But hey – if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that duplicating the same noun either side of the verb means solves all political issues, so I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.  

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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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