“There is no such thing as the North”: why devolution must be to the region's cities

Not a northern powerhouse: a sheep enjoying the grass in Grasmere, Cumbria. Image: Getty.

In recent months we’ve seen the focus on boosting northern city regions begin to expand to a focus on “the North” as a region.

This could be useful from the perspective of planning some pan-regional transport improvements, or the marketing of investment opportunities across the wider region. But such a large geography is ultimately not a helpful basis to devise and deliver the majority of economic policy interventions that could make a difference to the lives of people living in the area.

Here’s why:

1. The North is not a single political or economic unit…

Where does the North begin? North of the Watford Gap of course, or so goes the old joke.

Seriously though, if we are to begin thinking about a pan-North approach to economic development, defining the geography over which we’re talking about is a must.

Although not uncontested, let’s say we are happy to use the former government offices for the regions geography, as defined at the outset – that is, the North West, the North East and Yorkshire & the Humber. This “North” is an area home to around 14.5m people, dispersed across a massive 37,000km2 area.

To put those figures in context, that equates to the best part of double the population of Greater London, albeit spread over seven times the geographic space. It’s also about three times the population of Scotland, in about half the geographic space.

Yet the North is neither one functional economy like London, nor a single political unit like Scotland.

Although it can be argued that Greater London suffers from its own inadequate political boundaries, the capital is demonstrably a single, contiguous built up urban environment. It provides a reasonable approximation of the geography in which a majority of residents live and work, and a tier of governance that people can identify with.

The same cannot possibly be said of the North when, for example, just 4 per cent of working residents in Greater Manchester commute to the neighbouring Liverpool City Region; while only 1 per cent make the daily commute from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to Greater Manchester. Comparing the North to London is like comparing “the South” to the Liverpool City Region – why would you do it?

Scotland, by contrast, may be more rural and have a more dispersed population; but it has a far stronger, more cohesive historical, political and cultural identity than the North of England, as has been demonstrated by the rise of Scottish Nationalism over recent decades.

Whatever shared heritage or culture those of us from the North may share, it’s hard to observe anything approaching a “northern nationalism” that could compare. Indeed the identity politics of the North are often far from homogenous – just ask a Scouser how he feels about a Manc, a Mackem about a Geordie, or David Cameron about the people of Yorkshire.

2. And pretending it is one would make affecting change more difficult, not less

There are 15 separate urban areas in the North boasting a daytime population above 250,000. There are many more towns and villages of far smaller populations, each with their own economic history, as well as challenges and opportunities for the future. In total, these settlements are spread across 70 different administrative tiers, including counties, unitary authorities and district councils.

Without even thinking about the range of universities, Local Enterprise Partnerships or local Chambers of Commerce located across the North, to what extent will it ever really be possible, let alone helpful, for all of these constituent bodies to speak with one voice? If it was, what would that voice ask for, and how would it deliver if a positive response was elicited from government?

The fact is that, barring things like major inter-city transport connectivity or the marketing of investment opportunities across the wider region, it makes very little sense to think of “the North” – or for that matter “the South” or “the Midlands” – as tiers through which to devise and implement the majority of economic policy. And the risk is that, in trying to do so, we will take significant political capital, capacity and time away from the kind of interventions that could make a difference at the more local level.

Making the most of all of the assets of the North is of course important. But in seeking to do so we must not lose sight of the fact that there is no single political or economic geography of the North, or that economic change will ultimately best be affected at the level at which the economy actually works.

That’s why the move to more city-region combined authorities as the primary unit for local economic development policy is so important – and why we mustn’t be seduced by a whole region approach to all of the economic challenges facing places in the North.

Ben Harrison is director of communications & development at the Centre for Cities.

This article was originally published on the think tank's blog


Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.

What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.