The Tories’ Northern Powerhouse was a hollow promise

Ten years ago, George Osborne shared his party’s vision for a more prosperous, more autonomous, better-connected North. Was it one of the biggest duds in recent British politics?

Exactly 10 years ago this week, then-Tory chancellor George Osborne launched his fateful Northern Powerhouse” catchphrase in a speech at Manchester’s Museum for Science and Industry.

After nodding at the surrounding beam engines, hydraulic accumulators and turbines that made this part of Britain the economic powerhouse of the world”, Osborne went on to proclaim that we need to bring the cities of the north together as a team”. He also used the dubious analogy that if you brought together the best players from each of the Premiership teams in the north, you’d have a team that would wipe the floor with any competition”.

A decade later, few would say that Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse dream has amounted to much. While northern Premier League (that’s League, George) football teams still contain their fair share of globally elite players, Britain remains one of the most spatially unequal and over-centralised of the so-called advanced economies. Meanwhile, regions in the North of England still lag way behind the South East on a range of key statistical measures.

Was Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse therefore the greatest dud in British political history? And if so, what is the legacy of its spectacular failure as we head deeper into the current general election campaign, one in which even the promise of meaningful improvements for the North is not really being talked about?

Frankly, it is hard to imagine how anyone but a supremely aloof and delusional Old Pauline with an outmoded Thatcher fetish could ever have thought that Northern Powerhouse would work. Even allowing for the fact that political rhetoric tends to go big on hyperbole and light on detail, what is notable about Osborne’s 2014 speech is the lack of a meaningful strategy for actually bringing the North together.

As an abstract theory, Osborne’s stated plan was reasonable enough. He talked about providing the modern transport connections they need; by backing their science and universities; by backing their creative clusters; and giving them the local power and control that a powerhouse economy needs.” But in practice, as anyone who has spent even a small amount of time in a Northern urban area over the last decade can attest, most of these promises have turned out to be almost comically specious.

Largely because he was such a diabolical Thatcher fanatic, Osborne’s approach with Northern Powerhouse was essentially to sit back and hope that the invisible hand” of capitalist lore would somehow magically fix and rebuild the Northern economy”

The transport programmes associated with the Northern Powerhouse – the Northern Hub” largely focused on the rail network around Manchester, and the vision for a high-speed intra-North rail link ultimately dubbed Northern Powerhouse Rail or the HS3” – have resulted in only very basic, incremental improvements to the North’s threadbare infrastructure. As of 2024, HS3 seems to have been jettisoned entirely along with the massive downscaling of the HS2 route that was supposed to be its predecessor.

The result of all this is a North that continues to be chronically disconnected from itself. Train times between adjacent Northern urban areas like Manchester and Liverpool, Newcastle and Middlesbrough, and Bradford and pretty much everywhere can still take well over an hour. Meanwhile, Transpennine Express was last year brought into the operator of last resort after its trains regularly failed to show up at all, and much of the rural and exurban North – like the parts of County Durham often taken to be classic Red Wall” country – continues to have no rail service whatsoever.

As for Osborne’s promises about backing science and universities” and so-called creative clusters in the North, some might say that nothing very substantial in this vein has materialised since 2014. Still others would say there was not much of a plan here in the first place. Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse speech might have ranged airily over a handful of relatively small-scale examples of science and innovation investment” before making clear that Northern cities are great places to go out” and have the best pop music on the planet” (some more specific musical examples from this noted NWA fanboy would have been welcome here.)

In the end, the main reason for the sad demise of Northern Powerhouse was its incredible half-arsedness”

But while failing to offer any overarching strategy for investment, Osborne responded to the self-directed rhetorical question: What’s the [London-based] Crick [Institute] of the North going to be?” by deadpanning: Materials science? Nuclear technology? Something else? You tell me lol!” (The lol and the exclamation mark may have been added, but the rest is verbatim, and you get the idea.) And despite Osborne’s talk of support for creative clusters”, his feeble proposal for theatre tax credits was never going to go very far towards regenerating the cultural life of Northern areas and empowering young artists in an otherwise hostile creative environment.

In truth, Northern Powerhouse might be said to have had some meaningful elements aside from all these castles in the air. The proposals in Osborne’s speech relating to local government, for example, are surely the one area in which it has had any sort of lasting impact. The problem with the template Osborne laid down for this, however, was that it was almost exaggeratedly haphazard, oddly structured, and, like Northern Powerhouse more generally, woefully neglectful of much of the North outside of its major conurbations.

Osborne invited any city that wants to move to a new model of city government” to elect its own mayor. Some of the so-called metro mayoralties which have since sprung up have fared reasonably well, most notably Greater Manchester, where Andy Burnham – a soft-left metro mayor with a populist touch – has managed to pull off the one really major Northern civic success story of the last 10 years.

But elsewhere the metro mayoralties have, to put it mildly, yielded more questionable results. Since she was elected Mayor of West Yorkshire in 2021, Tracy Brabin has notably failed to emulate anything like Andy Burnham’s Mancunian success story on her side of the Pennines. Further to the North, the weird electoral entity North of Tyne” – an unfortunate product of Osborne’s you tell me” approach to regional devolution – was hampered from the start by its lack of jurisdiction over the North East as a whole, and has since descended into controversy on the way to a recent, long-overdue expansion. (And the less said about the murky underside of the Tees Valley mayoralty the better.)

In the end, the main reason for the sad demise of Northern Powerhouse – and that of its equally hollow successor levelling up” (RIP) – was its incredible half-arsedness. Largely because he was such a diabolical Thatcher fanatic, Osborne’s approach with Northern Powerhouse was essentially to sit back and hope that the invisible hand” of capitalist lore would somehow magically fix and rebuild the Northern economy.

But capitalism doesn’t care for broadly leftist ideals like regional equality. And so rather predictably, the Northern areas which were invested in and built up were the ones which seemed best positioned to yield a profit – namely the central urban quarters of Greater Manchester (as well as a couple of other, more modest outposts). Meanwhile, most of the rest of the North was left to rot where substantive government support was concerned.

Underneath the high-flown rhetoric of Northern Powerhouse lay the terrible Osbornite irony of austerity, morbidly grinning like one the skeletons supposed to represent the Black Death in a mediaeval fresco. This savage programme of government spending cuts disproportionately laid waste to the Northern cities Osborne claimed to be championing – and they have still not recovered.

Ultimately, rather than managing to create any modern Northern successors to the hydraulic accumulators and beam engines of the Industrial Revolution, it is the dark side of the Victorian years that Osborne succeeded in reviving. Ten years after the public debut of Northern Powerhouse, and partly because of the austerity policies Osborne set in motion, scurvy and rickets have once again returned to British life. The transport, education and health systems are permanently on the brink of crisis. Regional inequality is still growing – and is projected to grow even further over the next few years. With this last point in mind, it is hardly surprising that large numbers of young Northerners are now resigned to deserting their home region in search of a better life.

Perhaps Keir Starmer’s (probable) incoming Labour government is merely playing it safe by omitting to include any solid proposals for redressing all this in his party’s 2024 general election manifesto (while outgoing multi-millionaire PM Rishi Sunak long ago stopped pretending that the Tories could care less). We will have to hope so. Meanwhile, you wonder whether George Osborne ever feels a pang of remorse for accelerating a long-running regional nightmare while talking himself up as the North’s saviour in the mid-2010s. But there seems little chance of that.

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