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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.