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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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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