Why the north needs devolution, explained in four questions

Our saviours! Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham, the men most likely to become metro mayors of Liverpool and Manchester respectively next May. Image: Getty.

Here are the answers to the most common questions I get about devolution in the North of England.

Why can’t we just leave things alone?

Northern England is much poorer than similar regions in North America and Northern Europe. The North’s cities are particularly unproductive, and they require huge transfers of cash from Southern England to provide basic services like education and the NHS.

A lot of people in Southern England think that we’ve been trying to fix this for decades and that it’s an impossible task. They’re tired of sending more and more of their taxes north each year. They think that we should spend even more money in the South, and help northern people move to better lives there.

A lot of northern people disagree. They think that the UK government in London has taken poor decisions in trying to grow the northern economy, and that if we made better decisions, the north could be just as well off as similar places like the Netherlands, Finland or Ireland. We think that these policies would make the UK as a whole richer than the alternative of continuing to focus investment on South East England.

So why not just make better decisions?

The current system is what has led to the current failure. There is no reason to hope that continuing with the same system will give better results.

The problem is that most top civil servants, MPs, Lords, judges, media, learned societies, charities, and think-tanks lives in a single city that isn’t anything like Northern England. They try their best not to, but it’s inevitable that they generate policies based on their experiences. That means that they develop policies and assign funding with preference to the South of England. This has been happening for over a century, and the UK’s current economic imbalance is largely a result of it.

We could fix this bias really easily: move the UK capital to Manchester. We’d get slow and steady rebalancing with minimal change and without the mess of devolution. In 200 years, we might have a dominant north and a neglected south, but let’s deal with that then.

The only real problem with moving the capital to Manchester is that there’s absolutely no chance of it happening.

So what we need is for the North of England to take its own, better, decisions. This will help the North grow more quickly. We’re pretty sure that this will work because Scotland, which has been taking its own decisions for a while and is pretty similar to Northern England, has been growing more quickly for decades. Scotland requires much less subsidy from Southern England to fund its public services and it provides a higher standard of living for its people.


Okay, I get it, we need devolution. But why not ask Northern people what they want?

Ask Northern people what change they want and the overwhelming answer is “nothing, just more money”. The problem is that the North’s economy is too weak to pay for higher spending itself, and Southern England already sends a huge amount of money North each year. It isn’t keen on sending even more.

To try and reach a compromise, successive UK governments have come up with reasonable proposals that might improve things in Northern England.

It asked some Northern people if they wanted a regional assembly. We said no.

It asked Northern people if they wanted the alternative vote. We said no.

It asked Northern people if they wanted city mayors. We said no.

It asked Northern people if they wanted to remain in the EU – a body which underpinned much growth in Northern England. We said no.

It’s now so sure that people would say no to metro mayors that it’s given up asking.

In summary, Northern England is unhappy with its current situation but has rejected in referendums any of the changes that the UK as a whole would accept. At national elections Northern England keeps voting to end austerity while expecting Southern England to pay the bills for doing so. This isn’t going to happen.

So what’s the answer?

The North needs to grow its economy so that it does not require ever-increasing funding from the South of England to run its NHS and its schools.

The economics is pretty clear; the best chance of doing this is to focus on removing the barriers to growth in its largest cities. The North needs better transport within its cities and between its cities so that more people can contribute to the economic growth of places like Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle. The North needs to attract and retain the high-skill high-pay jobs that can replace the low-paid industries it hosts today. The North needs to make itself more attractive to talented people, by building more homes, improving schools, and by investing in culture and the environment.

But most importantly the North needs to convince the South of England that it has a plan to do all of the above, that it cannot pay for it itself, and that it represents a better investment for UK money than London. That will require a few stable leaders elected by a large number of people who can demand time in the UK media to state their case and argue the North’s corner.

At the moment there is an offer from the UK government in London. It is an offer that Manchester above anywhere else has taken and embraced. It is acceptable to the South of England’s party, the Conservatives.

The North should now get behind metro mayors, elect powerful ones, and demand that they fight for the investment that we need. Challenge them to be transparent, demand more equality and diversity? Yes, of course. But let’s stop moaning and start making devolution happen: we can and will improve it later.

Tom Forth runs a software company called imactivate and is an associate at ODILeeds. He tweets as @thomasforth. This post first appeared on his blog.

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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.