Over the course of Thursday and Friday Manchester is playing host to the first UK Northern Powerhouse International Conference & Exhibition. The event is bringing together individuals from the private sector, local Government and from abroad to discuss progress made to date on the Northern Powerhouse.
One unnamed Manchester business earlier this week told the Financial Times that the Northern Powerhouse was currently a brand without a product. Listening to the views emanating from the North in recent months only adds to this impression. It feels like this conference has come at an important moment in the projects development.
The Government pushed the Northern Powerhouse brand in the months following the General Election in May. However, the prominence of the EU referendum has led to a brief hiatus. It is has felt noticeably quiet since the turn of the year, while focus has understandably been elsewhere.
Delivering the keynote address to the conference in Manchester on Thursday morning, Commercial Secretary and local Mancunian, Lord Jim O’Neill, said that the success of the Northern Powerhouse should be measured in “years not months”. This is probably an accurate timescale to go by, but in political terms it is a relatively unusual approach, since Governments generally like to make announcements which lead to quick action and tangible outcomes, like tax cuts.
O’Neill’s long term plea is not out of step with other rhetoric we have heard to date from the Government. Chancellor George Osborne has mentioned on a number of occasions that he does not know whether the Northern Powerhouse will be a success. Such honesty from politicians is rare. We are used to seeing politicians go live on air to defend a policy in the face of mounting evidence against their position. This ‘on message’ approach is not popular with voters, but it is an engrained feature of our political and media industry.
This rhetorical approach to the Northern Powerhouse is interesting especially in the context of the current debate around the project. The debate in recent months has moved away from the terms in which the Government would ideally like to engage on and is now becoming synonymous with the state of infrastructure in the North.
This is tricky for the Government because of the current fiscal climate and its ability to invest in new projects. Even pointing to new developments like HS2 are not enough to deflect current criticism, in part due to the uncertainty around the economic benefits the project, along with the disputes over where the new high-speed line will be stopping on route.
Through its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse, the Government has unintentionally opened up a can of worms with a number of local councils and business leaders who have complained for years about the lack of investment in the North. The Northern Powerhouse has provided a channel for this frustration to be vented.
This frustration and political disagreement makes the rhetorical approach of the Government all the more interesting. In the face of its critics the response is to appeal to a long term view of what the Government is trying to achieve. It feels inadequate to the criticism being levied at the Government.
Sadly, political debates are seldom set-up for this sort of long-term approach. That is not to say it is not commendable, since a criticism of politicians and Government in general is the lack of long-term vision. The problem is that when this long-term approach is not mirrored across all other policy areas, it is understandable why critics are sceptical. It feels like a cheap response to critics. This is especially the case when the Government is calling for a long-term approach to the Northern Powerhouse but struggles to find a transformational amount of infrastructure funding to back it.
That said, the job of building a Northern Powerhouse is a seismic economic challenge, especially given the gulf in economic performance between the North and South. If the Government wants people to judge the Northern Powerhouse in years not months, then one way of helping to do this would be to publish a 30 year Northern Powerhouse strategy. At the moment the project is made up of a number of constituent parts but one overall strategy could set out a vision up 2036, or even longer, say 2050.
The most common question asked about the Northern Powerhouse I hear is ‘what is it?’ The first way to begin to answer that is to set a comprehensive strategy that can be used to measure its progress. A strategy of this nature would allow the Government to respond to its critics with a list of key priorities, goals and target dates. Without it, it is not clear what success we are supposed to be measuring.