Why the Northern Powerhouse is a tale of too few cities

The North’s towns and rural communities are being neglected.

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In recent years many politicians have started to wake up to the searing discontent with the status quo in towns across Britain. The EU referendum was a wake-up call, revealing a stark, geographical divide across the country. Almost without exception, cities voted to remain while the surrounding towns voted to leave in large numbers. While Liverpool and Manchester voted to remain in the EU, for example, Bury, Burnley, St Helens, Knowsley and Halton voted to leave.

Divisions, though, run much deeper than the EU. People in towns are significantly more likely to believe politicians don’t care about them or their area and are increasingly less positive about immigration, social rights and social security than the nearby cities. Slowly, but steadily, there have emerged what the academics Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker describe as “two Englands” that now sit unhappily side by side.

 The roots of this lie in political choices made over several decades. The Manchester I was born into in 1979 was older than surrounding towns. But as industry has disappeared, we have shown at Centre for Towns how towns such as Wigan, Bolton and Bury have become much older, and are aging still. In the Northern Powerhouse Minister’s own constituency, the largest town, Bacup, has aged significantly since 1981.

Those aged under 24 have fallen by a quarter in Bacup while the over-45s have grown by a third. The decision by successive governments to concentrate power and opportunity in cities in the hope that the benefits would trickle out to surrounding towns has cost those towns good jobs, much of the working-age population and spending power.

As such, in most towns the problems are now acute. High streets are struggling. Public transport commissioned on the basis of passenger numbers has become unviable. Bus services have been cut by ten per cent since 2008 and hundreds of routes removed altogether. The lack of spending power has meant in smaller communities, the pubs, banks and libraries, the beating heart of each community, have disappeared.

Towns such as Barnsley have seen their rich mining history replaced with companies such as ASOS, providing low-paid work with little prospect of career progression. Young people who can move away have done so and have found increasingly that they are unable to come back. Consequently, for many older people living miles from their families, social care has become a crisis, and the risk of loneliness has increased.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Despite our broken system those towns are still good places to live, with strong, ambitious communities who step up in times of hardship. There are good reasons businesses want to invest in them, including cheaper rents, space to expand and loyal workforces.

Towns are also often well situated between major cities and retain a legacy of skills and assets that exist from the days of industry. But too often, infrastructure isn’t there; the transport, skills and broadband that are preconditions for investment are in short supply.

As it stands, the Northern Powerhouse lacks the power to change this. Fundamental decisions are still made hundreds of miles away by indifferent politicians who have no skin in the game. A recent, striking example is the recommendation by the National Infrastructure Commission, whose members are drawn from London and the South East, that we should concentrate future investment in their region, despite stark regional differences in infrastructure spending that have brought much of the North to a standstill.

What investment we get does not fit in with our priorities. There is growing consensus that had we had the power to decide, we would never have started with HS2 but instead prioritised connecting our towns and cities across the North and focused far more attention on the bus services that are the arteries of our regional economies.

This is a system blind to the potential of our towns. Across our former mining towns young people are lucky to find work assembling solar panels, while in Silicon Valley, where the US federal government has been able to use a combination of tax breaks and clean-energy regulations to drive investment, young people are designing the battery technology of the future. Power brought closer to home can have profound consequences. In Germany, the federal government is able to allocate arts funding, so a town like Cottbus outside of Germany, which is roughly the same size as Wigan, has a thriving culture scene.

Here, the Arts Council spends £7 in Islington for every £1 they spend across all the former coalfield areas of the country, leaving large swathes of the North cut off from arts and culture opportunities. As a result, our working-class culture is airbrushed from the national story.

Across the North there is a burning sense that even more fundamental change is needed. The city devolution deals have replicated the mistakes made nationally, concentrating economic and political power in cities, leaving towns feeling still they are governed by remote, unaccountable power that is unable to solve their problems or see their potential. In South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, there was no public consultation before the system was imposed by former chancellor George Osborne and turnout in mayoral elections has been crushingly low: at 25.8 per cent in Sheffield and 28.9 per cent in Greater Manchester. Power cannot be imposed, it arises from consent.

At present the city devolution deals give little opportunity for local communities to be heard, with no mechanisms to scrutinise or challenge decision-making in between elections. There is no public scrutiny chamber, or resources similar to those provided to parliamentarians, that would enable the public, civil society or elected councillors to scrutinise decisions made on their behalf, and information about those decisions is not publicly available.

There are some signs change is coming. In Greater Manchester, the Mayor Andy Burnham has halted a plan – the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework – that sought to concentrate well-paid jobs in Manchester and build warehouses, for low-paid, insecure employment, on the greenbelt in surrounding towns.

At national level, too, there is a growing recognition that we cannot go on as we are. As cities have grown younger and rural areas have aged, the political map has been redrawn. Labour now has overwhelming support in most cities while the Tories dominate rural areas.

This has left towns such as Bolton, Calder Valley and Carlisle as key battlegrounds for the next election and concentrated minds on both sides of politics on the need for action to address the discontent in our Northern towns. People have known for some time the system isn’t working; and doesn’t deliver on the talent, ambition and potential that exists in those towns across the North. Hand us power, and this would change.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.