The Convention of the North is a watershed moment for English devolution

Bridges over the river Tyne in Newcastle, where the Convention is taking place. Image: Getty.

Today’s Convention of the North comes not a moment too soon. Although it will go unnoticed by many, it will prove to be even more significant than when George Osborne stood up in the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry back in 2014 and called for a Northern Powerhouse.

This is not to underestimate the galvanising effect of Osborne’s speech and subsequent initiatives – but there are three reasons why a convention involving cross-party political leadership, business, academia and civil society could be so much more significant in the long-term.

First, the Convention of the North is autonomous. Osborne was always resented and even rejected in some quarters simply for being an outsider coming North to tell us what we needed. His political agenda was never far from view – much like the £200m A556 highways improvements that now adorn his former constituency. And his vision of a “new London in the North” was clearly imported from personal experience in the City and the policy-wonks at LSE, but struck very few chords outside of Manchester and Leeds.

Interestingly, Osborne and his counterpart Jim O’Neill were often challenged about the need for Northern leaders to come together and speak with a single voice and they consistently argued it was unnecessary. It has taken the new mayors in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Tees Valley to recognise this need and drive it forward. And it is this autonomy that will give it far greater credibility, particularly at the grassroots: a bottom-up credibility that Westminster should find it hard to ignore. 
Secondly, the Convention of the North is deliberately inclusive. Not only does it bring together political leaders from across the parties, it recognises from the outset the crucial role of business, academia and civil society in driving the future of the North.

Unlike the male, stale and pale photo opportunities that came to characterise Osborne’s Powerhouse photo shoots, or the big business lobby that is the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, the Convention has an altogether different approach. The fact that its first meeting is in Newcastle is telling. Gone are the days when the North East was a marginal concern: in post-Brexit Britain, every place matters and the Convention would do well to develop a vision for the North which draws on all its members across all sectors and place.

Accusations of jam-spreading will no doubt abound, but trickle-down approaches (aka agglomeration) have clearly failed too many – and the North needs a more sustainable and inclusive model of growth than either Manchester or Leeds can ever deliver alone. 


The main reason the Convention is the most significant step forward concerns governance. Significant work has gone into preparing discussion papers on skills, transport and Brexit, and on these vital matters Northern leaders will now attempt to find common cause and a single voice. This has been sorely lacking for a decade.

Of course, local and combined authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and latterly metro-mayors have all been busy developing and implementing plans but they have failed to do so at sufficient scale. England is alone in the developed world in having no regional governance, and there is strong academic evidence that this lack is the root cause of our productivity problems.

As Phil McCann argues, with so much run from Whitehall, we simply don’t have the systems of co-ordination to enable regions like the North to navigate the vicissitudes of the global economy. England is too big and diverse, our city-regions are too small. Transport for the North already exemplifies what pan-Northern collaboration can achieve, even with one hand tied behind its back;  and although it does not yet purport to carry any jurisdictional weight, surely the Convention is a first step towards some form of more organised and accountable collaboration. 

Yesterday, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, made a powerful and optimistic speech about the potential of devolution to counter the paralysis and polarisation caused by Brexit. At the RSA we have long held the view that decentralisation is key to transforming public services and unlocking a more inclusive economy.

But devolved powers and finances require strong local accountability and I have recently set out a forward looking agenda for a Northern Powerhouse 2.0. A Convention of the North – supported by a deliberative Northern Citizens Assembly – perhaps provides a template for deeper democratic reform.

It will be easy to decry this tentative first step and there will be vested interest both within and outside the North that would happily see it stutter and fail – but perish those who doubt the potential of this significant step forward. If Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse achieved nothing other than to awaken Northern leaders to take back control themselves, then it will have been more than worth it. 

Ed Cox is the director of public services & communities at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.