Comment: Whatever happened to the Northern Powerhouse?
University of Sheffield Vice-Chancellor Sir Keith Burnett says the northern powerhouse is more than a slogan; it has the potential to transform higher vocational education in Britain and boost UK productivity.
Whatever happened to the Northern Powerhouse?
by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, posted 12 August 2016 in The Telegraph
So what's the story on the Northern Powerhouse? Is it dead, or dying of association with a former Chancellor?
In any case why should you or I care about a political slogan that is so easy to mock, wherever you live?
It may be just a slogan to you, but I live and work in the north and see how much we need it.
So what is there to like about a Northern Powerhouse?
The Northern Powerhouse can transform higher vocational education in Britain. Intensive and high-value industries, many of which are focused in the north of England, can offer a vocational route into university for young people who want no delay in getting skills that are valuable to employers.
We would have more apprentices to improve manufacturing capability and productivity. We would have more manufacturing companies that export their products. We would have more vital city centres in the north.
To echo the speech of a new Prime Minister, a revitalised north would mean lots more jobs and opportunities for poor white boys and girls.
It does not take a levy on all businesses to transform opportunities to young people, it takes support in the right places. If all we do is create three million apprenticeships that lead nowhere, we have solved nothing.
For all our challenges, the north is once again trading and making partnerships for growth in the US and Korea, in India and China.
Sir Keith Burnett
Low marginal costs and cheap labour are no longer an advantage in the capital-intensive world manufacturing now operates in. Investment in vital skills can create capacity for British companies to grow, others to move to the UK and production to come back on shore.
We would have more companies keen and able to fund research in the universities of the north and make new world beating products.
This virtuous circle of productivity is what once made Manchester a European capital, home to manufacturing prowess and the world’s first computer. This upward economic trajectory filled Bradford with textiles exported to India and Shanghai, which paid for the arts and concert halls still standing today. Its global power made my own adopted city of Sheffield a byword for quality in the making of cutlery and stainless steel, invented in the city's industrial research laboratories.
And the rest of the nation felt the north’s power. It is no coincidence that the grand Institute of Engineers in London is located just across from the Treasury. Britain's great wealth was bolstered by this endeavour.
So how was it lost, and why haven't we replaced it?
The north was the workshop of the world, but we just stood by as so much of our manufacturing industries died. Why? Because we as a nation had no industrial strategy for many years.
In fact, for some the mills and chimneys of the north left a distaste. They were heavy and dirty and smacked of trade. Banks and cultural establishments forget the realities of the wealth-creating endeavour which had funded them. They no longer felt the need to associate with their provincial cousins with their factories, Chambers of Commerce and Town Halls built on the back of textiles, coal, steel.
On top of that, the new metropolitan laissez-faire economic theology insisted it was right and pure to sit on our hands in the capital as the out-of-sight-and-mind workshops disappeared in the name of free trade. The theorists forgot that all great liners need a powerful boiler room in order to move fast, including the ship of state. The clean and fantastical trade of the money markets in the City of London made it easy to think it was passé to actually make a living.
If you don't live in a place which has lost its industrial heart, you may not understand.
If you live in the great city of the world, London, the north may seem an irrelevance - truly another country. Isn't it grim?
But much of my family still live in the devastated remains of what were the great mining community of the Rhondda valley in South Wales. And I now live in South Yorkshire, and have stood on the battlefield where the Battle of Orgreave played out.
I know that there are so many talented young people who don't deserve a life without the blessing of work. Talented hands that could be making things for the world. So don't try to tell me we don't need what a Northern Powerhouse can bring.
In the north, we are determined to carry on working on it and making the most we can of our opportunities. The slogan of the Treasury and its officials caught a wind of change and it has fanned the embers.
It is not easy to pick up shattered communities when everyone knows that money follows money, and even picking yourself up with your own bootstraps sometimes needs a steadying hand if support. But a Phoenix can rise from the ashes, and I have seen the signs of its rebirth.
On the once spent and contaminated ground of Orgreave, today you will find an advanced manufacturing campus. Home to over 100 companies – global and local – 500 highly-qualified engineers and scientists and 600 apprentices who are gaining the skills of the future sponsored by companies who believe they have a future.
The people living and working in the Northern Powerhouse are not narrow in our aspirations. For all our challenges, the north is once again trading and making partnerships for growth in the US and Korea, in India and China.
So, when a journalist for the China Daily asked me this week if the UK had abandoned the idea of a Northern Powerhouse and a thriving, productive north I answered her honestly that names are one thing, but that the need and determination remains, whatever it is called. I added a quotation from one of China's own leaders Deng Xiaoping: ‘It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.’ RIP the Northern Powerhouse? Not if we can help it.
Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FLSW is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield.