Do you remember the Northern Powerhouse? For those that don’t it is the government’s branded initiative to make the economy of the north bigger. For those that do remember it, they usually ask me – “is it dead?”.
I think this question is asked because it was very much associated with George Osborne, and he has now moved on to different things. Those of us around at the time were always keen to say, and we still are, that growing the economy of the north was neither a new idea nor a new strategy. George Osborne branded it and supercharged it but it was always bigger than that. Put simply, it lives on, or to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of its death were greatly exaggerated.
The Northern Powerhouse though was never an organisation – mercifully so, some would say. This then begged the question – who speaks for the north? And, when the chips are down, who will stand up for the north?
When you look around, there are many groups and organisations with ‘north’ in their names, and they do good work. However, they tend to focus on a single issue across the north. Transport for the North is a good example and there is a clue in its title – it focuses, very well, on transport. Similarly the N8 – the group of the 8 most research intensive universities of the north – focuses on universities. There is clearly a gap, or, until early last month, there was a gap. Step forward the Convention of the North.
Oh no, I suspect some of you are now saying, not another organisation. Not another talking shop. Rest assured, it is not an organisation and based on its first gathering, it is not a talking shop. At this point I have to admit to being somewhat partisan as we – Sheffield – have been part of the team that shaped the idea and developed the plan so I’m bound to think it’s a good move. We have been clear from the start that it should not be an organisation, it should not just be about business or politics, that it must be about people, towns, cities, coast and country, young, old and not so old.
So, what happened? Well, on September 6, 200 people gathered at the Baltic Arts Centre in Gateshead. They came from the worlds of religion, culture, business, charities and politics. It was a good gathering although all recognised we need to work harder to include young people.
They came together to talk about the north, about skills, about transport, and – inevitably – Brexit, and whilst they did talk about those things they also wanted to talk about including more people in the benefits of a growing economy, about helping all our schools perform as well as the best, about the fact that the last mile of your journey is as important as the big rail links that we are promised. Most importantly they talked about – and this came from the audience and not from those on the stage – the north speaking more about what it ‘will do’ rather than what it ‘needs’.
And that’s it. The day came, the energy was high, the determination was clear, the hope was real and the Convention of the North was created. So if it is not an organisation, what is it? Well it is a voice. It is a voice that is inclusive, and could be more so, that speaks up for the north in a positive and constructive way. It speaks for a north that is and wants to play its part in the economy and life of the country, but it also speaks for a north that will not be ignored, and in just about every aspect cannot be ignored. Just consider this fact to understand the scale - the value of northern goods exported last year (£58.4 bn) was greater than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together.
Once the dust has settled I am sure the decision will be that the Convention will continue. If it does, it will bring the north together to speak and propose on what matters. I am also sure that it will come together to stand up for the north when it looks like decisions may go against us. It will be a voice to be reckoned with.
Of course, this matters to Sheffield. We are a great city, and on many things we want the same as Leeds, Manchester, South Yorkshire and other parts of the north. A collective voice is stronger and louder than a single one, and means we cannot be played off against each other. Of course we will complete on some things, but sticking together on the big ticket items is surely better and more effective.
Lastly, being ‘for’ the north does not mean being against other places. We have a lot to offer so this is about positive proposals not negative commentary. The Convention makes the voice stronger and will make it harder for others not to listen.