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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.