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.

 
 
 
 

Uber’s battle for Buenos Aires is shaking rule of law in Argentina

A 2016 protest against Uber in Buenos Aires. Image: Getty.

Just 12 hours after Uber’s service became available in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, taxi industry representatives took the company – and the city’s administration – to court. The case was similar to those faced by the company in London, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Budapest, Frankfurt and several US states and Canadian provinces. Uber has faced legal challenges in relation to labour and licensing regulations, as well as allegations of misuse of data and tax avoidance.

Uber’s expansion has become a global epic with regional episodes. While the specifics differ, the terms of the debate remain the same. On one side: the rhetoric of inevitable technological progress and free choice. On the other: claims that precarious work and exploitation have reappeared in a sleeker guise.

Yet the Buenos Aires instalment of the saga is, in some ways, unique. In other places, Uber has acted on authorities’ demands – in some cases leaving those markets entirely, in others reforming or waiting for new regulations to develop. But on 22 April 2016, when a Buenos Aires judge declared Uber’s activities to be in breach of local laws and ordered the immediate blockade of the app, Uber simply continued its operations.

Since then, protests by both Uber and taxi drivers have intensified, while the conflict has branched out on several legal fronts, dragging in more courts, Uber drivers, tax authorities, Uber officials themselves and most recently one of the company’s Argentine lawyers, who initiated legal action in the state of California for what his legal representatives describe as “the unimaginable harm Uber inflicted on him as a result of Uber’s recklessly orchestrated entry into Buenos Aires”.

Uber’s strategy might seem scandalous – perhaps even more so, because it’s working.


Power to the people?

From the beginning of the conflict, the ride-sharing company argued that existing rules were obsolete, and that it was willing to cooperate with authorities to develop a legal framework “adapted to 21st century technology”, so that people would be “able to choose freely” like millions of others around the world.

Among the middle classes of many developing nations like Argentina, these arguments and references to modernity have huge political significance. In countries where democratic institutions are haunted by spectres of corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement, citizens see in Uber’s platform a world of opportunities. Anyone can set out and drive someone for money, a completely impenetrable algorithm produces market values according to demand, and users rate each other based on their experience. And crucially, no local actor can interfere: Uber’s separation from the state is seen to guarantee its virtues.

As part of my PhD fieldwork in Buenos Aires, I was researching how the middle classes understood the place of Argentina in the world. To these people, Uber carried the promise of a modernity beyond local interests and petty regulations. It seems the company has effectively aligned itself with the side of “the people”, in a struggle against governments, unions and other interests, which appear to stand in the way of progress.

A test for democracy

The legal tug-of-war resulting from Uber’s strategy is testing the strength of Argentina’s governance structures. Cities and states seeking to enforce the rule of law can appear silly and provincial in the eyes of their citizens – even when similar laws are followed elsewhere. Buenos Aires’ minister of transportation characterised Uber’s business strategy as being “two-tiered”: respecting governments in developed countries, ignoring them in developing ones.

Uber’s regional director for Latin America George Gordon replied:

French president Emmanuel Macron received Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, and they jointly announced investments in new forms of transportation and the launching of an insurance policy bringing maternity and paternity benefits to drivers and accident and injury coverage. This is an example of the relations we want to build in each country and city where we operate. Uber will continue to operate in Argentina, committed to growing and in the hope of opening a space of dialogue and cooperation with national authorities.

The irony is that the modernity middle class people in developing countries yearn for cannot exist without government and the rule of law. The structures and policies of private companies are set up for profit, not for public interest. The point of the law is precisely to ensure there is a framework citizens can reach out for, when things go wrong.

If the driver of a ride-sharing platform commits a crime, would a low rating be sufficient sanction? Would it be for that platform’s management to decide what counts as evidence? Those opposing Uber asked such questions hundreds of times, but amid the race for modernity they have seemed to be somehow missing the point.

Uber’s legal conflict in Buenos Aires may be entering its fourth year, but the people have already decided their winner. A developing nation’s yearning for modernity proved the crucial battleground for a slightly different epic than usual. At the very least, this ongoing saga should prompt new debates about new technologies and their place in people’s lives.

The Conversation

Juan Manuel del Nido, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Manchester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.