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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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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