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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Cats and dogs and Pokémon and ball pools: The eight joyful trains of Japan

Okay, it may not look like much, but... the exterior of the Genbi Shinkansen art experience. Image: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

If you’re on this website, you’ll likely agree with the statement: trains are good. We like trains. Trains are marvellous.

But in Britain our idea of a good train is “runs on time, doesn’t smell of wee, possibly has a spare seat”. Our national rail ambition has been battered by years of this crap: the most exciting we can hope for is to catch sight of the Orient Express as it flashes through a station, or a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Yet in Japan, there are trains dedicated to art and sake and Pokemon. There’s a train with a ball pool, for Christ’s sake.

These trains aren’t usually part of the ‘real’ timetable (that is, they don’t show up in the regular searches), and sometimes only run on specific days, they do still run proper routes. The Tohoku Emotion, for instance (all about dining; one car is an open kitchen) runs between Hachinohe and Kuji, adding a direct train between those cities in an otherwise annoying two hour gap.


Cost is, of course, another issue. It’s not possible to book many of these trains outside Japan so prices are tricky to come by, and some of the dining packages on offer will obviously involve laying down some hefty yen.

That said, the Kawasemi Yamasemi, an exquisitely decorated train that runs three times every day direct between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi in central Kyushu, costs about the same as travelling between the two on the bullet train (it’s faster too, because it’s direct). And I’m happy to bet the farm that any of these trains will cost a damn sight less than Japan’s newest, shiniest novelty train – and probably be more fun.

So without further ado, here are some of the best – and this really is what they’re called – Joyful Trains in Japan.

Pokémon with YOU

Yes, there really is a Pokémon train. Introduced in Tohoku to cheer up – and raise money for – the region’s children after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the service runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma stations, and if Niantic hasn’t worked out a way to put special Pokémon Go characters at each station, it’s missing a trick. There’s a playroom with big Snorlax cushions, the Drilbur Tunnel and real life Poké balls. And, as far as we can tell, a seat costs less than a fiver.

Oh, and because it’s run by JR East, you can do a Google Street View walkthrough of the whole train, which are available for many of the company’s Joyful Trains. Japan. Is. Awesome.

Image: Google Street View.

Tama-Den

If cute character-themed trains are your thing, then you should also check out the Tama-Den which runs on the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa line. Tama, you may recall, was a calico cat who became feted as a stationmaster, and elevated into a goddess when she died in 2015. (Her replacement, Tama II, works a five day week at Kishi station.) The Tama-Den is covered in drawings of her. And you thought your cat was spoiled.

Meow? Image: as365n2/Flickr/creative commons.

The same company also runs the Omo-den, which is all about toys and has cash-guzzling capsule toy vending machines on board.

Aso Boy!

Where there’s a cat train, there must also be a dog. Aso Boy! usually takes you past the caldera of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, but since the Kumamoto earthquake the route is altered.

 But even with the lack of its main scenic draw, this is still a top train because it features the cutest of all Japan’s regional mascots. Kuro is JR Kyushu’s yuru-chara and the damnably adorable dog gets everywhere. It’s one-up on the Tama-Den because you can buy Kuro-themed food and souvenirs, and this is the train with the ball pool.

The balls are wooden though. Ouch.

On board Aso Boy! Image: Jill Chen/Flickr/creative commons.

Genbi Shinkansen

The bullet train is cool enough, but this one is decorated inside and out with the work of eight modern artists. Running between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa, the Genbi Shinkansen reckons it’s the world’s fastest art experience. With a journey time of just under an hour, works range from standard wall-mounted paintings to art that’s literally part of the furniture.

Images: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

SL Ginga

Not only is this train hauled by a steam locomotive, it has a freaking planetarium on board. It’s inspired by children’s author Kenji Miyazawa’s book Night on the Galactic Railroad which is set in the early 20th century, and the decor is meant to echo that era. There are galleries devoted to Miyazawa’s life, and the train runs between Hanamaki – where he was from – and Kamaishi.

Image: Google Street View.

FruiTea Fukushima

The whole of Fukushima province has been tainted by association with its namesake nuclear power plant, which is deeply unfair as it’s a gorgeous part of the country.

To drum up tourism, the FruiTea train went into service a couple of years ago on the standard line connecting Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle-and-samurai town. There are several Joyful Trains dedicated to eating and drinking, but this one deserves a mention because its locally produced fruit snacks and drinks deserve wider recognition. As does the area.

Here’s your Google Street View walkthrough:

Image: Google Street View.

Shu*Kura

There are three Shu*Kura trains, all departing from Joetsumyoko but with different destinations. This is another train dedicated to eating and, well... drinking.

Niigata Prefecture claims to brew the finest sake in the world, and this three car service showcases the best of them. It also has live music and snacks, but the point here is that you can stand at a sake cask-themed bar and get tiddly without anyone judging you, like they would for that M&S prosecco.

And check out the lights on that thing.

Image: Google Street View.

Toreiyu Tsubasa

This is the train to catch if you want to go full Japan. Most of the cars don’t have seats, they have tatami mats and low tables instead, billed as a ‘conversation space’.

There’s another tatami car designed as more of a lounge for people after they’ve used the footbath. Yes, you did read that correctly. A footbath. You’re not going to want your shoes with all this tatami anyway, and it’s a unique way to view the scenery between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Image: Google Street View.

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