Are we nearly there yet? Four years of the Northern Powerhouse

Remember him? Ex-chancellor George Osborne launches his Northern Powerhouse Partnership in autumn 2016. Image: Getty.

Saturday 23 June marks a significant anniversary in British political history. No, not that one: it’s four years since George Osborne, in a speech at Manchester’s Museum of Science & Industry, first coined the phrase “Northern Powerhouse”.

Osborne’s speech prompted equal parts intrigue and scepticism amongst certain sections of the Northern intelligentsia. Following the abolition of regional development agencies in 2010, and the quiet death of Labour’s now largely forgotten Northern Way agenda, regional policy for the North had lacked an overarching theme. Local Enterprise Partnerships, constrained by austerity and with few formal powers, struggled to make much of an impact. City-region devolution was (and remains) uneven and confused.

The Conservative-led government needed to reframe the regional policy debate, and the Chancellor desired an electoral strategy that would enable the Tories to compete in key Northern marginals like Bolton West and Hazel Grove. And so, the Northern Powerhouse was born.

What is the Northern Powerhouse?

In that 2014 speech, Osborne described four ‘ingredients’ for building a more prosperous North: transport; devolution; science & innovation; and culture.

Science and culture have since largely fallen from the radar, aside from a handful of investments in the likes of Manchester’s new Factory theatre and the upcoming Great Exhibition of the North. What remains is fundamentally a regional development project with transport planning as the central policy lever, with the goal of creating a region with “not one city, but a collection of Northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world”.

Right now though, Osborne’s promise of improving infrastructure to the point where traversing the North is the “equivalent of travelling around a single global city” appears laughable – especially given the recent well-publicised rail meltdown. The gap between rhetoric and reality for stranded commuters seems wider than ever.

A new civil service for the North

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Northern Powerhouse project as a failure already. Its most significant achievement is the creation of Transport for the North (TfN), the UK’s first ever pan-Northern government body. Established in 2015 and granted statutory powers in April this year, TfN can now be regarded as the Powerhouse project’s civil service.

These are very early days, but there are signs that having a proper Northern institution with real, if limited, powers has helped shift the terms of the agenda somewhat. Osborne’s early vision was criticised in some quarters for its over-emphasis on the North’s largest cities, and Manchester in particular.

Where the magic happens. Click to expand. Image: TfN.

By contrast, TfN’s recently published draft Strategic Transport Plan provides a welcome focus on the assets of smaller cities and towns. It leans heavily on evidence from 2016’s Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review, which identified the four most important sectors, or ‘prime capabilities’ for the North: energy; digital; health innovation; and advanced manufacturing. The plan then identifies seven ‘growth corridors’ where transport infrastructure requires improvement to better connect the key businesses working in these areas.

Interestingly, the plan is not based on the existing transport network; nor does it simply aim to connect the North’s most populous cities. As such, it challenges the concept of the Northern Powerhouse as an overly urban-centric model that risks turning Manchester into a London of the North and ignores other parts of the region.

The role of high speed rail within the Powerhouse agenda reflects this. The “high speed rail connection from from Manchester to Leeds” described by Osborne in 2014 has morphed into Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), a less grandiose plan combining new lines, improvements to existing infrastructure and, crucially, a new station at Bradford, a city too often ignored in previous attempts at regional development.

The proposed corridors. Click to expand. Image: TfN.

HS2, meanwhile, is increasingly regarded by many Northern politicians as an opportunity for urban regeneration rather than a transformational infrastructure project, with the biggest improvements to connectivity likely to be felt more in Birmingham than Manchester or Leeds.


What happens next?

Of course, this is only a plan, and one at a very strategic level. As yet, there is no confirmed funding for NPR. Few of the proposed schemes have planning permission yet. Battles over Green Belt and compulsory purchases are some years off.

But the act of moving some power out of Whitehall to a new, independent, sub-national government body is significant and, given the UK’s long-standing reluctance to devolve governing capacity from the centre can be regarded as an achievement. The momentum of the Northern Powerhouse project can only be maintained if it is run from the North.

The Northern Powerhouse probably isn’t what George Osborne thought it would be, and by itself the project won’t reverse 100 years of relative decline in Northern England. But it is something, and unlike previous attempts at regional development will increasingly be driven by an organisation outside the Whitehall bubble. The current rail debacle is a major test – but it need not signal the end of the line for the Northern Powerhouse.

Tom Arnold is a PhD Researcher in the Department of Planning & Environmental Management at the University of Manchester. He tweets as @tj_arnold.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.