I was at the International Economic Conference in Leeds the day before the start of the Tour de France when Nick Clegg MP announced the launch of Northern Futures (see "Power. Performance. Potential. Leeds Economic Conference" 5 July 2014 IP North West). Shortly afterwards the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister launched the Northern Futures website which canvassed ideas from members of the public on how to "build on the strengths in the North to create an economic core in the heart of the region that can compete with the biggest cities in the world?"
According to the website the Office received hundreds of ideas which were grouped into 9 common themes all of which can be viewed here. The government had also received the final report of Jim O'Neil's City Growth Commission Unleashing Metro Growth which the Royal Society of Arts published in October and David Higginson's report Rebalancing Britain which supports a fast rail link across the Pennines. All those strands were gathered together at the Northern Futures Summit which took place in Leeds on 6 Nov 2014. The agenda for the event is here. The proceedings were filmed and you can watch it above. The highlights of the day were keynote speeches from the Deputy Prime Minister, Jim O'Neil and Prof. Ed Glaeser of Harvard University. Apart from two short presentations from local schoolchildren, a welcome from the leader of Leeds City Council and comments from local council leaders and chief executives, the day was spent listening to "pitches" on behalf of the 9 groups of proposals, evaluating those ideas and voting on them with electronic voting panels which were attached to our chairs. We tested those panels by voting on which of great cities of the North was more fun. The popular choice was Newcastle followed by Manchester.
At the economic conference in July I had been dismayed by the negativity of the council leaders and chief executive of York towards Manchester which was quite in contrast to the message of the Deputy Prime Minister. The same politicians and local government officer were at the Northern Summit and I am glad to say that this time they were a lot more positive in what they said about the North West. Perhaps it was because representatives of Greater Manchester and Merseyside as well as the Deputy Prime Minister were at the conference for the whole day.
According to Clegg the reason for the discussion was the economic crisis of 2008 from which the world is only just emerging and the Scottish independence debate. He described the crisis as not
"just a traditional blip on an economist’s graph; this wasn’t any old recession. This was a complete implosion, a seizure in the way in which we run our economy. I think what everyone’s realised in the wake of the 2008 crash was that it wasn’t just a failure to regulate the banks, it wasn’t just became of imbalances in the subprime market in the United States. It was also the consequences of a very – a profoundly unbalanced way in which the British economy was being organised: overreliance on one square mile in the City of London to the exclusion of the 100,000 square miles across the United Kingdom."Clegg's points were picked up and developed by O'Neil who argued that the regeneration of the North was in the interests of the whole country and not just the region. It was not to be at the expense of London. Rather it was to reproduce in the North some of the benefits of agglomeration that are to be found in London. O'Neil also downplayed the importance of the Scottish referendum in the debate on devolution for the English regions. The case for decentralization was economic and would have taken place even without the referendum.
That prompted a question from me as to whether elected mayors and city regional authorities of the kind that had been announced for Greater Manchester a few days earlier were necessary for co-operation. I pointed to New York where the agglomeration stretched across three states or the Upper Rhine where the Basel, Freiburg, Mulhouse agglomeration straddled three countries. O'Neil responded that it wasn't. Many of his Commission's plans could be achieved without such institutions. In answer to another question he quoted a remark from the Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield University that if it was necessary for Sheffield to become a suburb of Manchester in order for all cities to get a slice of a much bigger pie then so be it. It was a way of thinking to be encouraged.
In his publications Prof Glaeser has influenced much of the debate on agglomeration as the motor of economic growth. He spoke about the factors that caused cities to grow such as Seattle and to decline such as Detroit. He warned that decentralization was not always a good thing because it could lead to bad local management as exemplified in Detroit. Great public infrastructure projects like the Detroit monorail were not the answer. Having lost half its population the city's streets were no longer congested. What seemed to work was investment in education and favourable policies for business. As I had discussed TechNorth in my IP North West blog I asked Prof Glaeser whether it was possible to create a silicon valley or roundabout in our region. His advice was not to try to re-create Silicon Valley. Get the regulation and environment right and good things will happen.
I met a number of interesting individuals over lunch and the tea and coffee break. I learned about the Hannah Directory that indexes great things happening in the North of England. I spoke to academics, councillors and businesspeople. Everyone seemed to glad to be at the event though several thought the pitching and evaluation format as a back of an envelope approach to developing policy.
Had I been running the summit I think I would have separated the issues of devolution and economic regeneration. Moreover I am not sure that devolution is what the country needs. This was illustrated by a pitch by Prof Tony Travers for fiscal decentralization and an evaluation by Sir Bob Kerslake of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Travers argued that decentralization should be gradual and incremental otherwise it would be resisted by Whitehall. Interestingly the mandarin pointed out that the risk of gradualism was that it would be achieved piecemeal. In my humble opinion Kerslake is right. If we are to avoid not just West Lothian but also West Gorton questions them we need a demarcation between the responsibilities between central and local government that requires a federal constitution. I believe Germany offers a model as it accommodates the aspirations of the "Free State" of a Bavaria with a more than twice the population of Scotland which was independent much more recently as well as those of the city regions of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg but that is a discussion for another day.
If anyone wants to discuss this article, the summit, Northern regeneration, constitutional reform or any other topic discussed or alluded to here, he or she should call me on 020 7404 5252 during normal office hours or fill in my contact form.
7 Nov 2014
6 Nov 2014
Brookings, The Svenue
25 Oct 2014
IP North West
22 July 2014
5 July 2914
IP North West
3 Apil 2014
IP North West
3 Jan 2013
IP North West
10 Sept 2011
16 Oct 2014
5 Nov 2014
6 Nov 2014
PWC in the North
7 Nov 2014
LSE, British Politics and Policy
7 Nov 2014
Place North West