With the changes in British politics this summer, some doubt was cast about the future of George Osborne’s flagship Northern Powerhouse policy. As things have started to calm down, at least on the Conservative side of the House, it looks like Mrs May is every bit as serious about it as her predecessor was.
The initiative, which seeks to revitalise the economy of the North of England, is based on three main pillars; devolved powers and budgets controlled by directly elected mayors and Combined Authorities, improved transport through Transport for the North and schemes like HS3, and investment through a Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund.
Naturally it has its detractors, who are for the most part entrenched Labour politicians and their union baron allies, along what’s left of the Lib Dems in the North. Desperate to protect their monopolies in the areas they have under-represented for years, Labour MPs and council leaders coined phrases such as ‘Northern Poorhouse’, and rarely miss an opportunity to turn discussions about devolution into demands for more of other people’s money. Given the vast majority of left-wing politicians don’t understand the difference between the economy and the public sector, it’s hardly surprising they don’t understand the Northern Powerhouse.
One criticism in particular levelled at the policy is that it is a PR exercise, or as our former coalition partners labelled it, smoke and mirrors. This is untrue, as the people making these allegations know, but by attacking it in such a way they inadvertently highlighted one of its most important strengths: its brand. This might seem unimportant at a local level, where the impact of devolved powers and improved transport are the metrics the Northern Powerhouse will be judged on, but in terms of inward investment it could not be more important.
When potential foreign investors are talking to UKTI officials, they are now offered the choice of investing in London or the Northern Powerhouse, as opposed to London, Newcastle, Leeds or Manchester, for example. This one simple difference puts everything the North has to offer on the table at once, making it a more attractive prospect.
Rather than damaging the Northern Powerhouse, the change of Government has started to change the way people think about it. The first Northern Powerhouse Minister, James Wharton, did a fantastic job of promoting the project, and was uniquely placed as a North East MP to understand the needs of the region that has the most to gain from it. His replacement, Andrew Percy, also has a background that will stand him in good stead in the role.
Andrew’s Brigg and Google constituency lies on the border of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, an area previous governments have unsuccessfully tried to label ‘Humberside’. Born and bred in Hull, and educated at the University of York, the former teacher is about as northern as you can get, and proudly so. He knows the concerns of areas that have been left behind by other policies, so it’s quite possible that the small towns of the North, and the vast rural areas that surround them might have found their champion, and could be closer to an equal footing with the comparatively giant city regions than ever before.
It is vital that our new Government keeps the Northern Powerhouse the centre of its legislative agenda. This can improve things across the North, and show people in traditional Labour strongholds that the Conservatives are the party that actually has their best interests at heart.
Chris Rowell is a Senior Public Relations Consultant based in the North of England. He ran Andrea Jenkyns MP’s successful 2015 General Election Campaign, which unseated sitting Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. He is a member of the Conservative Way Forward National Organising Committee.