Northern Futures: Another New Dawn for the North?

Northern Futures

Northern Futures: another new dawn for the North? Tom Forth has a few doubts …

My incessant ranting about the North of England’s place in the world paid off the other Thursday as I took up my invite to Nick Clegg’s Northern Futures event in Leeds. Things started well – my name had slipped off the list and the venue was a secret, so I didn’t know where to go. Fortunately a quick text, a game of “spot the undercover policemen”, and a flash of my Eventbrite app sorted everything.

I’d attended – and washed up after – Leeds’ previous Northern Futures event hosted at the ODILeeds. There we’d been invited to think deep, dream big, and build on our strengths. Expertly steered by facilitators from London we were cajoled to come up with wonderful local plans that didn’t challenge the capital’s economic dominance or argue for anything more than token powers in the North. “Let’s work together, not fight each other” we were encouraged.

Highlight reels from similar sessions in other cities were shown at breaks during the main event so we could relive the magic from weeks before. Diverse faces smiled, post-it notes covered whiteboards, and accented Northerners remarked on how wonderful the day had been, and how engaged and hopeful they felt for the future. A cabinet office team in London reported that it had been great to get out and consult the people. Much had been learned, and the culture of government was changing. The warm glow of positivity in the videos reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Later in the day I realised how similar they were to the propaganda videos shown on Vietnamese state TV that my friend Vinh mocks on Facebook.

First up to speak after a few introductions were Freya and Sam from Abbey Grange Academy in Leeds. I was absolutely dreading their slot. Sorry Freya and Sam, it’s not your fault; it’s just a problem with this type of events. If you’re anything outside the normal you get showered with praise, given a standing ovation, told you’re inspirational, and then forgotten about a few days later. Thankfully that didn’t happen because you played a blinder. Sam’s line that the North should aim high because “did you dream of being a substitute in your football team?” was probably the best thing I heard all day. It’s a sentiment that Leeds too frequently rejects.

Jim O’Neill was next. Back when he was Chief Economist at Goldman Sachs he coined the term BRICs to describe Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Now he’s selling his new idea – the Northern powerhouse of ManSheffPool – and his favourite football team, Manchester United. He mentioned Manchester United three times actually. That would have been brave a decade ago in Leeds. But partly because the North has moved on more than he realises and partly because most of the audience and the organisers had come up from London to speak to us about the North it didn’t even raise a heckle.

From the hundreds of ideas submitted on the Northern Futures website, nine highly-manicured “pitches” for Northern growth were made by people who I’d never noticed participate in the #NorthernFutures debate. A panel of experts with well-paid jobs critiqued those visions by relating points they agreed with to their own opinions and declaring them wonderful. Then the audience voted on their preferred pitch using wireless contraptions that modern teachers know more about than me.

Without fail the crowd of think-tankers, journalists, and government employees selected the most feel-good and least confrontational option. Gary Verity was punished for suggesting that the £10m Nick Clegg had announced earlier in the day was welcome but only a fraction of the tourism spend in other parts of the country. A competing and admittedly compelling pitch suggesting that we all work together and not fight each other to secure the North’s tech future predictably won. A wonderful pitch by Katie Schmuecker to stop Whitehall meddling in education likewise lost out to a scheme to bring derelict land back into use; the latter required no money or power to travel North whereas the former called for considerable Northern power so the result was never in doubt.

I remember vividly that Ed Glaeser spoke for a bit. Extremely energetically, and quickly, and Americanly. He is challenging but encouraging at the same time and a wonderful public speaker. But since you can read his great book Triumph of the City for yourselves I’ll say no more.

Much of the rest of the event is a blur. There was some more “looking forward”, I ate a sandwich, a few more “turning points”, then I drank some coffee, and then a couple more “seize the opportunities” and “drive home the momentum”. I noted that the UK’s experts on devolution, the SNP, could either not come or were not invited which was a shame. I think they’d have livened things up. I remember the CEO of Newcastle Council Pat Richie saying something very interesting about how flights to Dubai were helping her region’s exports.

And then the councillors came out.

I know what you’re thinking. Councillors?! The Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson and the probably-soon-to-be Mayor of Greater Manchester Richard Leese were on the bill, but they cancelled. So we had five Northern Councillors. And to my surprise, they were absolutely brilliant. If you’re going to watch any of the conference I’d suggest starting with them.

Head of Wakefield Council Peter Box came straight out and said what everyone sensible in the room was thinking about local power – “six months before every election I get national politicians telling me how much they love the North … they get into power and it never happens”. He delivered the second punch of his one-two combination with “if the cuts to local government continue there will be no local government to devolve power to”. Well, he didn’t exactly say the second thing, but I’m sure he won’t mind me altering his quote slightly to sound better.

David Green of Bradford Council was much more impressive than he appears on Look North snippets and agreed almost completely with Peter Box. We’ve proved we can be successful, just let us do more was his message. Then Peter Rankin of Preston stepped up and reminded the audience that after nearly five years of a government committed to localism he still receives letters from government ministers telling him how often to collect his constituents’ bins.

I understand the desire to keep things positive at these types of events, but most of the time it felt like were just dodging the real issues. The councillors coming out at the end was a welcome antidote to that. It was also a reminder of why decentralisation is so important and why it will be so hard to win.

Of course, Nick Clegg disagreed completely with all the councillors. There was an economic mess to sort out, and the coalition had devolved huge amounts of powers, and this wasn’t like before, this time it was for real. Of course he said that. What else could he say?

We didn’t have a vote on whether the audience agreed with Mr. Clegg or Mr. Box on the motivation for promises of devolution.

I hope it’s Nick Clegg that’s right, I really do. I desperately want Leeds to be the ambitious place that Sam and Freya described. I want this region to be a place where we take responsibility for our own problems, and we take unpopular decisions – like increasing local taxes, or cutting benefits to the elderly – to fund the things we want to improve in our city.

I want us to do much more locally instead of relying on hand-outs from London. I want us to blame ourselves when things don’t work, instead of someone 180 miles away who doesn’t care. I want this to be a place where people come for an education and stay to start businesses. I want to live in a place where we build enough homes to keep housing affordable, and create enough apprenticeships to keep everyone employable. Most of all I want to live in a region that stops squabbling about whether Leeds is too powerful or whether a combined authority or a mayor would have too much power and accepts that our current system has failed and must be replaced by something, anything, just not more of the same failure!

“You must be sick of Londoners coming up here to tell you what to think” said CityMetric’s John Elledge to me in the pub afterwards. “Yes, I’m sick of it”, I replied. “I suppose I’m just not sure that the rest of us are sick enough of it yet”.

This latest new dawn is our chance to take the leap of faith we’ll need to stop asking London for power and start strengthening the institutions we need to demand it. If we dither like we have in the past, if we find reasons to say no instead of opportunities to say yes, it will be five more years of underachievement and wasted potential before we get another chance. A lot of the talent and potential in this city cannot wait that long.