Ignoring the north led to Brexit. Here's what needs to happen now

Well, at least this guy's still looking over them. The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

The people have spoken, but in the north they have shouted. Economically, politically and socially northerners have had enough. The signs of malaise with the Westminster elite have been there for some time – but the rise of UKIP outside the big cities has been largely masked by the sop of devolution, talk of a Northern Powerhouse and our voting system. Now, northerners in large numbers would seem to have landed a punch that will give the whole nation a bloody nose for years to come.

Economically, to leave the EU is clearly not in northern interests. Whatever you believe about the Northern Powerhouse, few can deny that our trading relationships with our (soon to be former) European partners matter much more to northern businesses than they do to the City of London. Nearly sixty per cent of all North Eastern trade is with Europe, compared with just 40 per cent in London.

And yet who will be first to the table to negotiate new trade deals? What will guide decision-making in the board room at Nissan or Siemens? If we end up bidding farewell to our nearest neighbours in Scotland, no amount of repatriated EU grant will begin to plug the hole that this decision leaves. The north's incomplete transition from its industrial past has meant that it has fared worse than the rest of the country in every recession since the 70s, and that transition just got a whole lot harder.

Politically, the genie is out of the lamp. The Conservative Party may well be irrevocably split and the prime minister a dead man walking, but in the North of England – for so long Labour's assumed home turf - red roses are being replaced by purple rosettes. This result is clearly a blow to Labour's prospects in the north and pours cold water Osborne's vision of city renaissance and industrial revival in the north as a political strategy has come unstuck.

And what of the chancellor now? We should fear that – whether the chancellor is George Osborne or a replacement – the Northern Powerhouse will be the least of his or her concerns as the pound plummets and the national economy reels. While storing up so much political capital with the core cities may have delivered some small dollops of yellow amidst the sea of blue on the referendum map, it means about as much to his chances of survival as the word “agglomeration” does to Brenda in Burnley or Wasim in Wakefield.

Ultimately, though, it was society, stupid. Immigration trumped economic concerns: it plays out in northern communities very differently to what we see in hyperdiverse London boroughs. With their more rapidly ageing demographics, northern towns and cities need migrants more than anywhere else.

And not just in our hospitals. Our universities thrive with international talent that often stays to start business and attract investment. But this matters little when too many people experience polarised communities living separate lives and when leaving the EU somehow seems to make sense of such change.

So where now for the north? Economically, if the UK is going to go it alone, we need to define the kind of economy we want to become. Our obsession with the big cities and aggregate growth must take a new turn and wake up to the cries of those on the margins who are busy manufacturing the goods we will now struggle harder to sell overseas. For the sake of such people we need new trade agreements fast and a Great North Plan that maximises all our economic assets. Our calls for an East-West Freight Supercorridor linking Atlantic shipping to Liverpool with the European continent via Hull, and broader investment in international connectivity, should grow louder. We need a Global North now like never before.

Politically, we should let devolution rip. If Scotland goes its own way, any attempt by Westminster parties to centralise administrative control in the name of national unity will be met with further body blows. Both major political parties must reinvent themselves from the bottom up with more plural local political systems that bring people closer to power. Metro mayors and combined authorities are a start, but we need proportional representation, votes at 16 and proper scrutiny of devolved arrangements to rekindle local democracy and stem the desire to use national democratic moments to excise pent up impotence.

But it is socially where the greatest challenge lies in the weeks ahead. Regions, cities and communities stand more divided than ever in living memory and the consequences will reverberate down every street as the threat of recession looms and Leave's promised land looks ever more distant. It is at the neighbourhood level that we will need to rediscover our true north.

And where better to look than to Batley? Jo Cox may not have left a legacy to Remain that she would have wanted; but her message of love, hope and reconciliation is more important than ever.

Ed Cox is director of IPPR North. This article was originally published on our sister site The Staggers.



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.