City regions aren't enough: it's time for a Council of the North

The Angel of the North, Gateshead. Image: Getty.

This time last year, IPPR North published a report which promoted the then rather unpopular idea that our smaller towns and cities were vital to the kind of economy the north needed to become.

It confronted some of the narrower conceptions of agglomeration and urban growth with emerging evidence of more complex city systems, and it made a case for a Northern Powerhouse that was far more inclusive than had hitherto been promulgated by the then chancellor. Now, with a big shove from Leave voters, thinking about “inclusive growth” is all the rage.

On Friday, IPPR North published a new report – Taking Back Control in the North – which champions another currently unpopular cause: regional governance.

There is a widely-held view that we shouldn’t talk about the structures and institutions of the so-called northern powerhouse. This view is promoted primarily by those who currently hold the reins: city leaders and chief executives, big businesses, government ministers and civil servants. But there is increasing evidence that the northern economy can only flourish when it has the institutional capacity to drive its own industrial strategy: England’s weak sub-national institutions lie at the heart of our severe regional imbalances.

The evidence is best exemplified in the work of Phil McCann, now at the University of Sheffield. To summarise the incredibly detailed analysis laid out in his most recent book, he makes three key points.

First, the UK’s weak long-term productivity is principally a result of the differential effects of globalisation on different parts of the country. There has been a very poor transition of economies outside London from their industrial pasts, while the benefits of globalisation have remained confined to London and its hinterland. For too long the former problem has been masked by the latter success.

As a result, “the UK economy is not only diverging but it is now disconnecting, decoupling and dislocating into two or possibly three quite separate economies”. London has become insulated and isolated from the wider economy, something likely to be exacerbated by the UK’s departure from the EU; while policy and practice has wrongly assumed that the success of the capital city brings aggregate benefits to the rest of the economy.

Second, explanations for poor productivity performance outside London have tended to be weak. There is little evidence of problems being associated with cities being undersized; educational differences are too small to explain the size of the productivity gap.

And if there is a brain-drain, then it is “tiny and also remarkably stable… Human capital and spatial sorting explanations provide few clues as to the UK’s interregional experiences”, as is the case with knowledge spillovers, financial and fiscal linkages too. McCann argues that most of the common diagnoses put forward concerning the North–South divide are actually the symptoms rather than causes of the problem.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially for the north, is the fundamental problem facing the UK economy. There are high levels of regional differentiation and inequality caused by the differential effects of global shocks; but there is insufficient regional autonomy in order to mobilise the appropriate local players, institutions, knowledge and capital in order to develop effective responses.

The core argument is that British regional policy and industrial strategy has stumbled on account of its failure to address issues of subnational governance and its poor awareness of the economic geography of the nation. This argument is all the more compelling when we consider that the two ‘economies’ of the UK which have demonstrated the greatest relative success are London and Scotland, where higher levels of subnational autonomy have enabled them to maximise their local economic advantages, in relation to financial and professional services in the City of London and as regards oil and gas in Scotland.

Brexit and a new approach to Industrial Strategy throw these issues into even sharper relief. With Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan holding regular, if contested, meetings with ministers and officials on Brexit, Northern council leaders wrote to the Prime Minister requesting similar meetings, only to be rebuffed some six months after their letter had been sent. And with devolution in the doldrums, the new industrial strategy green paper relegates any consideration of institutional capacity and leadership to pillar 10; even then, it seems preoccupied with strengthening local enterprise partnerships.

Important as they, are LEPS – even in the most promising city regions – are simply too small to punch their weight in the global economy. In another crucial insight from McCann’s data analysis, he reveals that the UK has a ‘regional’ more than an ‘urban’ problem – and that identifying the appropriate scale for tackling our economic imbalances is key for building institutional capacity.

IPPR North has long argued that the £300bn Northern economy – worth twice that of Scotland – with 15m people and 1m businesses is well-placed to compete with the most successful and similar-sized nations and states. It has a geography that can transcend the most obvious parochial and political rivalries. And, crucially, it provides a viable platform for fiscal devolution at scale. It simply needs stronger leadership and a Great North Plan.


So what then of the institutions that might be needed? Out proposal is for a Council of the North. Made up of the same 19 constituent members of the current Transport for the North board and with similar voting mechanisms it avoids the need for a “new layer of politicians”. It should also have a very clear and narrow remit to develop and implement a Northern industrial strategy acting as a go-between between government, combined authorities and other more functional agencies such as Transport for the North.

But any serious governance requires democratic legitimacy, particularly if it wants to have any role in relation to public finances. Again, transcending political challenges and looking to 21st century models of democratic innovation, we propose a Northern Citizens Assembly, its members chosen by lot, to hold the Council of the North to account and give it some broad direction.

The precise form either of these new institutions might take is worthy of much further debate but, unpopular as it may be, the time has come for England to face up to its governance problems. If we fail to do so all hopes for our new industrial strategy will fall flat.

Ed Cox is director of IPPR North and tweets as @edcox_ippr.

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Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.