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What’s the Northern Future?

Posted on 16 September 2014

For many of us spending a weekend revisiting childhood haunts brings with it mixed emotions, especially when there’s a ‘significant’ family gathering involved. My last trip up the M6 involved a lot of misty-eyed pleasure but left me with a nagging question. Is the proud mill town I grew up in looking tattier than it did 30 years ago and in a gradual process of decline? Or is my vision blurred by nostalgia and actually it was as rough and ready then as it is now?

Some things are incontrovertible fact. A few Victorian architectural gems have gone. The town centre has more pound shops and chicken shops than bakers and butchers. But on the other side of the coin an old Methodist chapel that had become a pretty functional supermarket by the 1970s has recently re-opened following a stunningly sensitive conversion – ironically as a pub. Both the town’s secondary schools have been transformed with new buildings and facilities and there’s even a deli in the market hall. So perhaps for every sign of decay there’s an equal and opposite symbol of revival.

What struck me most, though, was the emptiness. There may have been fewer shops thirty years ago but I’m sure they were fuller. The covered market was always bustling and the buses were frequent and busy. Or again maybe the rose-tinted spectacles have slipped down.

Whatever the truth I can’t help feeling buoyed by the fact that Nick Clegg has sought to commandeer IPPR’s Northern Futures project, even if the motivation is more linked to using the Scottish referendum as a platform to position the Lib Dems as the party of devolution. The project is a call for ideas aimed at creating a new economic hub in the north.

The call to action comes easily. Towns and cities that invented the global economy in the 19th century are now caught in the economic downdraught of the City and need to find an anchor for jobs and investment to improve living standards. The need is even greater since Government decided it was no longer in the wealth redistribution business and banished the word ‘regeneration’ to the policy wilderness. Something needs to be done.

There’s a trap here. 

What won’t be sustainable is trying to create the same economic conditions in Manchester or Leeds that exist in London. Both may have a Harvey Nichols but focusing on relocating a small number of high value jobs into these urban centres won’t on its own breathe new life into Bacup or Beeston.

What I hope the Northern Futures project leads to is a genuine exploration of the kind of economy that will benefit the maximum number of people as opposed to generate the highest GVA scores. For me this is an economic model built on the principles of local sustainability – a true mixed economy with northern towns and cities meeting more of their own needs from local production, be that of goods, food or energy. It’s not about retreating into a Good Life idyll but recognising that in a world with dwindling natural resources economic resilience will to a degree be determined by levels of self-sufficiency. It also involves creating jobs that are accessible to more people in more places. The industrial revolution was built on exploiting natural resources – access to wool, water and coal. 

The economic renaissance of the North needs to be underpinned by a similar appreciation of the link between natural and economic capital.

Post by Graham Duxbury, Chief Executive
Groundwork UK