In theory, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is really rather a good idea. When George Osborne introduced the phrase in a 2014 address in Manchester, he set out an impressively ambitious vision of a co-ordinated, mostly urban Northern economy, strong enough to ‘take on the world’. He described “a belt that runs from Liverpool to Hull” with modern transport links, improved universities, “creative clusters” (tech etc.), and increased devolution. The North, he said, “can be stronger than the sum of its parts”. Powerful stuff, but vague.
Some detect the unseemly odour of press stunt. Osborne’s speech did appear geared towards inserting the words ‘Northern Powerhouse’ firmly into the media lexicon, and the fact that I’m writing this article at all is a testament to his success in doing so. But he’s playing a dangerous game: this isn’t a piece of manifesto small print that can be quietly discarded, and such strong rhetoric has a tendency to backfire. Conservatism is already unpopular in the urban North, and failure to deliver could become Osborne’s ‘tuition fees’ moment.
So with millions of Northerners waiting expectantly, what’s happened so far? To be honest, not a lot. We have a new ‘Northern Powerhouse’ minister – James Wharton – and Jim O’ Neil, former chief economist for Goldman Sachs, is to oversee economic devolution. Manchester has a new elected mayor, and as of October, Sheffield will get one too. Good appointments, but only appointments. More tangibly, a new organisation called Transport for the North has been set up to connect major cities, while recent pledges include a £400 million investment fund to assist small businesses. Not bad, but most onlookers seem to agree that there’s still a worrying lack of cold, hard funds.
Some of these plans are obviously long term (such as HS3, a high-speed Trans-Pennine rail link), but there is a definite consensus that should now have been done. Mr. Wharton didn’t allay any fears over finance when he stressed “using the resources we already have”, in an interview with The Financial Times. Declining to reel off a list of new developments, he stated that “flexibility of policy…is key”. He backtracked further on Osborne’s rhetoric, declaring that “it’s not about North versus South”, and defending the recent delays in Northern electrification as “a pause not a stop”.
Of course, there is a sense that any Conservative plan was always going to be a tough sell in the urban heartlands of the North. Labour councillors have been climbing on top of each other to declare the initiatives ‘not enough’, while many commentators have pointed to specific areas of neglect. What about Carlisle? Has enough been done for Leeds? I rarely feel sympathy for George Osborne, but one wonders how he is supposed to respond to the twin criticisms of ‘why have you neglected Birmingham’ and ‘Manchester isn’t North enough’.
Online reaction has focused more on Mr. Osborne’s perceived untrustworthiness: “traitorous Westminster monkey” says one post, while another accuses him of “funding his chums in Cheshire”. “Load of bollocks”, asserts one poet.
Overall, public perception was sceptical at the time, and has become more so as the year has ticked by. With financial backing the elephant in the room, the Conservative government have four years to convince the electorate that the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was more than just a shameless exercise in hype.
Either way, the internet will always hate George Osborne. “The North don’t need that bastard”, posted one critic on a Guardian opinion piece. Perhaps he should have been called George Snow.