Why the North needs a narrative

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Why the North needs a narrative

It’s now six years since the then Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a new initiative for the North.

The Northern Powerhouse was supposed to create a focus for investment, to redress the long-standing North-South economic imbalance.

Since then the concept has waxed and waned – sometimes high on the political agenda; at other times seemingly on life support. Meanwhile, what has really changed?

Very little, it seems, based on the recent UK2070 Commission report which concluded that the UK is now the most unequal large country in the developed world. Among a blizzard of statistics, the report found that, over a 10-year period, London’s economy grew by nine times as much as the area covered by the Northern Powerhouse.

So is the Northern Powerhouse anything more than a label? Can it become a means to deliver the Government’s much-vaunted “levelling up” agenda?

Perhaps, but, to do so, it needs to become much more than a badge. Critically, the North lacks a complete, coherent and joined-up narrative that stakeholders of all sectors can get behind.

It also requires recognition that, despite the Northern Powerhouse being referred to so frequently by politicians and the media, there simply isn’t an understanding of what the North as a place offers.

We often speak to London-based fund managers and investors and the image they have of the North is terrifying. To many of them the North means flat caps, whippets, grimness, Coronation Street and post-industrial malaise.

This false narrative prevails because the focus is so often on the North’s challenges, such as the deficiencies of the transport infrastructure, or on the demise of the industries of the past.

There is a huge missing link – what the North has, rather than what it hasn’t.

Where is the celebration of the North’s assets and opportunities … its superb universities, great businesses and brands, and quality of life?

We work with places of all sizes – towns, cities, counties and regions. The North is on a completely different scale, but it’s not too big to have its own place story. After all, to a Chinese investor the North equates in population to a single city region in their country.

For certain audiences, the North offers the required scale, critical mass and opportunity, complementing and highlighting the places within it but that story and sense of place doesn’t exist.

The levelling up agenda is undoubtedly a huge opportunity for the North, but it’s one that will remain under-exploited if the debate remains focused on the disparity in funding between North and South.

Investment is only part of the solution. What is needed is a positive, forward-looking narrative that builds confidence and self-belief and creates an opportunity for a collaborative spirit and activity between the places and stakeholders that make up the North.

The North is a powerful proposition. It can become a place powerhouse, built on much more than economic strength and growth potential. The North’s story must encompass culture, heritage, landscape, quality of life and value for money; a special sense of place that those who experience it want to be part of.

The North has so many positives and opportunities. Let’s not forget those in the clamour to give it a funding fair deal.


John Till, Director

16th March 2020