A roadmap for how to Make The North Great Again

Houses in Liverpool, 2015. Image: Getty.

The north of England has always been associated with industry, innovation, and pride in both. You can still see that pioneering spirit all over the North, whether it’s Teesside’s growing renewable energy sector, or Greater Manchester’s reputation for excellence in e-commerce and fashion.

However, that success is not as widespread as it should be. It’s been five years since then-Chancellor George Osborne called for a “Northern Powerhouse” to rival London and the South-East, yet analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that gross value-added (GVA) – the value of goods produced – per head in the North still lags behind that in the South. This isn’t how you build a healthy, balanced UK-wide economy.

If we’re serious about changing this, then it’s time to talk about what simple things could set the foundations for a prosperous North. You don’t need an economics degree to understand that you’ll struggle to encourage talented employers and workers to an area if you can’t offer them the basics – things like decent homes, proper transport, and attractive areas in which to live.

That’s why Homes for the North will be joined by Kevin Hollinrake MP, Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, and Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey as we launch our new charter, Rebalancing the Economy: Building the Northern Homes We Need in Parliament this week.

We’ll be talking about the importance of devolution, transport, and the right homes in the right places for northern growth. In today’s politically turbulent times it can be hard to find something Labour and Conservatives can agree on, but we’re delighted that colleagues from both sides of the House will be coming together to celebrate something that unites them: the importance of a prosperous North.

With the right tools and right approach, the North could thrive. That’s why we’ll also be announcing an upcoming piece of research we’re working on with Transport for the North that explores how a new approach to homes and infrastructure could support the delivery of a massive £97 billion in additional GVA by 2050.

This new research, Housing Requirements to meet North of England Economic Growth Potential, builds on the findings of 2016’s Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review – a piece of analysis that set out how pursuing the “Northern Powerhouse Vision” could deliver a “transformational” change to the economy by 2050. This includes the creation of 1.5 million new jobs, and delivering an additional £97 billion in GVA – a massive boost that would benefit all of the UK, not just the North.

In response to this review, Transport for the North has set out how strategic transport investments in key areas could help to deliver this vision of prosperity by opening up new areas in which to live and work. Now, Homes for the North is working with Transport for the North, the Centre for Economics and Business Research and other partners to deliver the final piece of the puzzle: how building the right homes in the right places could put the North on track to achieve that “transformational” economic growth scenario.

This research will set out what, to many, just makes intuitive sense: that if you’re opening up new infrastructure links, and an area needs new homes, planning the two in tandem will result in a well-connected community where people want to live. This isn’t about ripping up the rulebook on planning – it’s about doing things smarter, and getting better results.


However, we can’t realise this vision of a rebalanced economy without a serious conversation about investment and ambition. At present, the Treasury assesses how and where to allocate investment using a methodology that relies heavily on a cost-benefit-analysis that looks at short-term economic value (ie, return on investment) rather than longer-term economic potential. This means that Treasury investment in vital infrastructure ends up disproportionately funnelled into areas like the South-East – areas that are already productive and economically strong.

This is a short-term approach that reinforces the productivity gap between the North and South. Unfortunately, we see this approach echoed in the government’s new means of assessing housing need. Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) has local authorities assess how many homes they need using data based on projections reflecting a period of sluggish economic growth – rather than accounting for future need and local ambition.

Homes for the North analysis found that this has resulted in the government underestimating how many homes are needed as a baseline in the North to the tune of 13,000 homes – which could mean a £2.37 billion loss in economic output. This is particularly troubling in light of Homes for the North research which revealed that the North needs at least 50,000 new homes a year just to keep pace with current demand.

Clearly, it’s time for the Government to take a more long-term approach to how it allocates funding for vital infrastructure such as homes and transport – looking at local economic ambition and plans, not just past trends and performance. The North certainly isn’t short on ambition and potential – last year saw Centre for Cities rank Manchester and Leeds the top two cities in the country for city centre jobs and growth.

If the Government wants to aid and assist this growth, and ensure that it is spread across the North, it’s high time that the Treasury started considering future demand and opportunity when allocating investment. We need targets, we need investment, we need the powers to deliver them in a way that works in a specifically northern context.

Our research and charter is focussed on how the North could achieve that “transformational” change to the northern economy – but it’s important that we never lose sight of the country-wide context. The lopsided nature of the economy means that many are effectively trapped in the London commuter belt, wrestling with high costs of living, housing, and commuting. A rebalanced economy would mean that people have greater choice over where in the UK they build their careers, homes, and families.

What’s more, in the first six months of 2018, the UK was one of the slowest growing economies in the G7. If the Government is to reverse this trend, it needs to start taking the North’s potential seriously. It’s time for real investment in this potential, and recognition of the fundamental importance of ‘basic’ infrastructure like homes and transport in transforming an area’s fortunes. For the sake of all of the UK, it’s high time we properly invest in the North.

Carol Matthews is chief executive of housing association Riverside and chair of Homes for the North.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.