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.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.