The North of England was traditionally viewed as playing second fiddle to the South. Now, however, times are changing. The North has found a new confidence, while the South becomes an increasingly tough place to live and work. But the two are interlinked and each could learn valuable lessons from the other, as regeneration director and consultant David Barrie explains.
In recent times, good economic news stories from the North of England have been pretty spectacular. The port of Liverpool opens a new £400m terminal. A Sheikh from Abu Dhabi invests more than £1.2bn in Manchester City; Nissan announces manufacture of a new model at its plant in Sunderland; and Beverley, Crewe and Warrington are named in the top ten list of places to live in the UK.
Meanwhile, bad news stories from the South have been relentless. Lloyds Bank finds there is no city in the south of England with homes that cost less than 7.5 times the average local income; an academic announces that the gap between rich and poor in London is at its worst since the age of slavery. The risk of terrorism and petty crime helps rank London ten places below Manchester in The Economist’s list of ‘liveable cities’.
“The risk of terrorism and petty crime helps rank London ten places below Manchester in The Economist’s list of 'liveable cities”.
Mark E. Smith of post-punk group The Fall once described East Germany in Soviet times as “a horrible, horrible way to live... like Middlesbrough.” Art critic Brian Sewell said of the depressed mill towns east of Preston: “The best they can hope for is another plague – or a bout of Russian flu.” In Phoenix Nights, comedian Peter Kay’s character dreamt of building a new “superclub” in Bolton: “A king of clubs only this time we’ll have it all – we’ll serve food.”
But this kind of mockery is now very wide of the mark. The complexion and economy of the North has changed. The ‘them and us’ of North and South is fast disappearing, as the two regions become ever more linked; and there is much that the South can now learn from the North. In May 2017, the Government devolution agenda will step forward with the Greater Manchester mayoral election. And with greater local control over transport, housing, skills and healthcare, the importance of the North as a centre for model behaviour will only increase. Then, when HS2 reaches Crewe in just over a decade, a new age of physical connection between the two regions will be complete.
Lead from the top
The new North is in part the result of a ‘municipalist model of leadership’ that grew up in the 1980s and 90s and continues today, says local government expert and strategist Simon Parker. Under chief executives and elected leaders such as Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein in Manchester, Joe Anderson and Ged Fitzgerald in Liverpool, Lord Kerslake in Sheffield and Pat Ritchie in Newcastle, the government of Northern cities has enjoyed strong and stable civic leadership. “This has allowed the active shaping of places,” says Parker.
London is rather different, according to Mike Emmerich of Metro Dynamics, a consultancy at the heart of former Chancellor George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse strategy. “London’s growth has tended to happen in spite of its government. In the North, it is much more because of it,” he explains.
“London’s growth has tended to happen in spite of its Government. In the North, it is much more because of it”.
Nonetheless, the economies of North and South are connected in many ways. With its relative surplus of inexpensive land, the North is increasingly the home of affordable housing for those locked out of the market in the South. The region provides essential back office support to many large companies in London – ‘northshoring’, as it’s known – with, for example, the ‘magic circle’ law firm Freshfields doubling its legal services centre in Manchester.
Over the last two decades, as financial services and venture investment have grown in the South, the North has become home to important, niche and often domestic-facing activities, such as materials and bio-sciences (Manchester and Liverpool), gaming (Sheffield, Wakefield and Leeds) or advanced manufacturing (Rotherham and Sunderland).
“If the North was a separate country,” says Tom Riordan, CEO of Leeds City Council, “it would be the world’s twenty-first largest economy”.
Cat Lewis, CEO of the TV production company Nine Lives Media in Manchester, believes the connection between North and South brings tangible benefits to both.
“The BBC has its iPlayer team based at Media City in Salford, and they are developing totally new story telling technologies – really working at the cutting edge. There is also talk of ITV moving its IT team up from London.” One cause: “It’s becoming harder than ever for London to offer what young workers want – for example, the ability to buy a property or rent a decent place”.
Club flyer from 2011
The 'New Municipalists'
Nick Horrocks of investment bank GP Bullhound believes that the affordability of property in the North is important not just for entrepreneurs but also investors. “It just doesn’t make sense to run a business in the South, unless you really need to,” says Horrocks. “Property costs are too high for a bootstrapping, early stage company, and it doesn’t make sense either for investors to sink significant amounts of money into the dead weight of overheads.”
Since the 1980s, the ‘New Municipalists’ of the North have set down innovative strategies to develop their economies. Different areas with diverse histories have forged collaborative, not competitive, ways of working. The public and private sectors have pioneered joint venture arrangements that mitigate development risk and use private sector expertise and finance to grow brands. Clever, complex, city-wide partnerships have formed not just to make change, but also engineer a new attitude to change. “If you want to make progress, forget about tribal politics,” says Sean Anstee, Leader of Trafford Council, now a member of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
“The working class tradition of the North has always been one of self-help. There is a persistent folk memory of the need to work together”
Doing the Knowledge
A good example of common cause in action is the Knowledge Quarter Liverpool, with its focus on growing innovation in biosciences. The ‘KQ Liverpool’ Board includes the University of Liverpool, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, John Moores University, the City Council, the local NHS Trust, Liverpool Vision and The Hope Street Community Interest Company. In a wider coalition, there are over a dozen institutions, including entrepreneurial ‘incubators’ and professional organisations such as the Royal College of Physicians, as well as funding from diverse sources, including the Gates Foundation.
“The University of Liverpool’s strength in infection, when combined with those at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, can rival anywhere in the world for preventing, fighting and curing infectious diseases,” says KQ CEO Colin Sinclair. “This work and the commercialisation of it fits with and supports the work of the local NHS Trust.”
London and the South East struggles to make such partnerships work, says Mike Emmerich, but in part that’s because it doesn’t need to: “In Central London, there is such staggering wealth within small plots of land; it is the staggering wealth that calls the shots.”
Friction between London boroughs – and there is a lot of it – simply confirms an economy and culture that are increasingly fractured by housing policy and gentrification. Collaboration in the South tends to be more about merging powers devolved from central government and developing skills, education and social care, says Simon Parker. He believes that distinction should not come as a surprise. “The working class tradition of the North has always been one of self-help. There is a persistent folk memory of the need to work together, and create unifying structures to do it.”
“Around London’s wealth, a myth has taken hold that the place is indifferent, almost a zombie society”
Rooted and suited
While culture in London in recent years has bought into the bohemianism of San Francisco and free market ideology of the US, the North seems to be growing a blend of millennial culture without forsaking its traditional populism, rootedness and hunger for the new.
It is plain to see in people, places and projects across the North: be it new pocket estates of affordable, co-operative eco-homes in Leeds and Sheffield; the ‘Boho’ District of Middlesbrough; music venues such as The Warehouse Project; or the work of Lancashire-born DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, seeing art in obscure electronic dance music and taking it into the mainstream.
For sure, London and the South East is a great place to be young. However, around its wealth, a myth has taken hold that the place is indifferent, almost a zombie society, aloof, sensitive only to places with the charm and blandness of an airport departure lounge. This isn’t true. For behind the stucco terraces of West London, towering blocks of Barking and mansions sat behind hedges in the Home Counties, there remains an intense awareness of the local and a loyalty to neighbourhood that people identify and connect with. It’s just that the forces of globalisation seem to make it harder to express.
The North offers the South lessons in common cause and how to celebrate and wear its distinctiveness on the outside. The question is: can it hold on to these values, as its cities experience record levels of global investment, ever-increasing numbers of seasonal students, and it becomes ever-more difficult to provide affordable housing for different communities in one place? In facing these challenges, North and South are thoroughly at one.