How the north of England's economy is being reborn

"I call it the buzz – you don’t just automatically assume, ‘What time’s the next train to London?'" 

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In The Road to Wigan Pier, his 1937 polemic-cum-documentary on the plight of the north, George Orwell exposed the appalling conditions of life in the shadow of the colliery tower, slag heap and factory chimney. “It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes, and foul water,” he wrote.

Take the train to the north today, to a city such as Manchester, and it’s a very different story. As you pass through Macclesfield and Stockport, the brick towers no longer belch smoke: they have long been converted into shops or storage units. Nor, as the train pulls into Manchester Piccadilly, are you assailed by the great commotion of industry, as Orwell was. The powered looms of a city once known as “Cottonopolis”, owing to its global dominance in the textiles business, went long ago.

Quite how the Trafford-born artist LS Lowry would render the prosperous-looking commuters, the Maserati parked on the shopping thoroughfare of King Street, the shining steel and glass buildings of Spinningfields filled with lawyers, accountants and actuaries, or indeed the family of Chinese tourists I saw ambling across Albert Square, one can only guess.

After the long dark night of the last century – one marred by grinding poverty, decline, drift and hunger – the north is being reborn.

A few days before visiting Manchester, I met Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist and Conservative minister, who developed the concept of the “Brics” countries back in 2001. Since 2014, among other things, he’s been working on a new idea: the Northern Powerhouse.

It began with a vision he had of Manchester and Liverpool growing closer together and harnessing each other’s economic potential, which he christened “ManPool”. “Then about two weeks later,” O’Neill recalled, “I’m like, ‘Hang on a minute: Sheffield to Manchester, Liverpool to Manchester, Leeds to Manchester; they’re all shorter than the Central Line. If you could get those [working] as one economic unit – hey presto!’” In fact, connect these places up efficiently – and link in cities such as Bradford, Newcastle and Hull – and you’d have a combined urban population of eight million (nearly as large as London), plus a handful of the world’s leading universities, as well as several industrial leaders, which could all complement each other. O’Neill calls it agglomeration.

The realisation of this vision hinges on infrastructure such as High Speed 2 (HS2) – the new line from London to Manchester and Leeds due to be completed by 2032 – as well as the proposed “Crossrail for the north”, now dubbed “Northern Powerhouse Rail” (or HS3), which will halve journey times from Liverpool to Hull.

John Cridland is the man responsible for making the project happen. He’s best known for his five-year stint as head of the CBI and, it turns out, that’s how he approaches his chairmanship of Transport for the North (TfN), which as of April became responsible for airports, rail, light rail, roads, buses and ports in the north. “It’s not a transport project, it’s an economic project,” Cridland said when we met in Southwark, south London. “It’s about driving investment levels up; it’s about making international investment more attractive using connectivity as one of the ways of doing it.”

And there is work to be done. Today the economic output of an average northerner is around £5,000 below that of someone living in the south. To close that gap, Cridland’s authority has developed an ambitious 30-year transport plan for the north, costing £70bn, “a run-rate of £2.3bn a year”. In preparation, Leeds-based TfN identified four areas where the north has “global excellences” in business – namely advanced manufacturing, low carbon energy, and in digital and life sciences. “If you agglomerate those; if you connect up their supply chains and their labour markets in a way that gives boards investment options, which currently chief executives wouldn’t even take to the board because connectivity isn’t there, then you’re multiplying the growth rate of already successful and international tradable sectors,” explained Cridland.

When I met O'Neill he confirmed: “There’s definitely something happening in the north-west. You can see it in the economic numbers.” Indeed, he believes that the region “is going into Brexit on an accelerating-strengthening position, where London is actually weaker”. O’Neill continued: “Once something starts, I know from working for 30 years in finance, once people smell a game going on, where you can make money – that just creates its own virtuous circularity.” And there’s something else that O’Neill is banking on: local talent. Forty years ago this Sheffield University graduate left the north and never looked back. But things are changing. “I call it the buzz,” O’Neill said. “Particularly for younger people, you break that cycle that’s gone on ever since I left university – you don’t just automatically assume, ‘What time’s the next train to London? That’s the rest of my life.’ You start to create this idea that you can have a prosperous future without being in London.

Which is why this “objective Remainer” believes that successfully rebalancing the economy is more important than Brexit. “I would passionately argue [that] dealing with the interregional and intergenerational productivity problems [is] way more important than Brexit. Way more important,” he says, noting that Britain’s productivity growth and regional imbalances have worsened over the last 46 years. “All else being equal, Brexit is not helpful to the UK becoming the biggest European economy by 2050. However, if the shock of it forces us to deal with these other issues, then of course we will.”

That’s right: buy northern and make Britain great again. Eight decades after The Road to Wigan Pier, the narrative has been turned on its head. 

Alec Marsh is the editor of Spear’s magazine. A full version of this piece appears in the May/June issue

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead

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