Whisper it quietly, but after decades in the wilderness the North of England really is on the way to becoming a powerhouse. Alec Marsh reports
‘As you travel northward your eye, accustomed to the South or East, does not notice much difference until you are beyond Birmingham. It is only when you get a little further north, to the pottery towns and beyond, that you begin to encounter the real ugliness of industrialism – an ugliness so frightful and so arresting that you are obliged, as it were, to come to terms with it.’
That was George Orwell writing in The Road to Wigan Pier, his 1937 polemic-cum-documentary on the plight of the North, in which, notwithstanding his well-intended condescension, he exposed the appalling conditions of life in the shadow of the colliery tower, slag heap and factory chimney. ‘It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes, and foul water,’ he wrote.
Take the train to the North today, to a city such as Manchester, and it’s a very different story. As you pass through Macclesfield and Stockport, the brick towers no longer belch smoke: they have long been converted into shops or storage units. Nor, as the train pulls into Manchester Piccadilly, are you assailed by the great commotion of industry, as Orwell might. The powered looms of a city once known as Cottonopolis, thanks to its global dominance in the textiles business, went long ago.
Walk from Manchester Piccadilly station now, as I did shortly after 5pm one recent weekday, and you’ll meet waves of Lowry-like figures – cheerful office-workers and professionals, bound for trains home.
There’s a Waitrose on the pedestrianised approach to the station, and from here you’ll glimpse a modern yellow tram glide by – it could be Munich or Amsterdam.
Walk on and you’ll find yourself in a gridded cityscape of renovated Victorian warehouses, offices and factory buildings, all in austere red brick. I spot a basement sushi bar, a Toni & Guy on the corner; a passable-looking pub lurks in a back street. Seventies car parks and offices in concrete proliferate, and before you know it you’re in the neo-Gothic, pedestrianised splendour of St Peter’s Square, now bisected by a tram station, with the insouciance of a Naples or Milan. Opposite the neoclassical doughnut of the public library, recently reopened after a multimillion-pound refurbishment, the accountancy firm KPMG occupies a block, and in the distance gleam several embryonic skyscrapers.
Quite how the Trafford-born Lowry would have rendered the prosperous-looking commuters, the Maserati parked
on the shopping thoroughfare of King Street, the shining steel and glass buildings of Spinningfields filled with lawyers, accountants and actuaries – or indeed the family of Chinese tourists I saw ambling across Albert Square – one can only guess.
For those of us who don’t know it yet, this is the North of England. After the long, dark night of the last century – one filled with grinding poverty, decline, drift and hunger – the North is getting back on its feet.
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A few days before visiting Manchester, I meet Lord O’Neill, who you’ll remember is the former Goldman Sachs economist who came up with the idea of the BRICs back in 2001. Since 2014, among other things, he’s been working on a new idea: the Northern Powerhouse. It began with a vision he had of Manchester and Liverpool growing closer together to tap into each other’s economic potential, which he christened ‘ManPool’.
‘Then, about two weeks later,’ the Yorkshireman recalls, ‘I’m like, “Hang on a minute: Sheffield to Manchester, Liverpool to Manchester, Leeds to Manchester; they’re all shorter than the Central Line. If you could get those [working] as one economic unit – hey presto!”’
In fact, connect these places up efficiently – and link in places such as Bradford, Newcastle and Hull – and you’d have a combined urban population of eight million people, plus a handful of the world’s leading universities, as well as several industrial leaders, which could all complement each other. He calls it agglomeration.For a model, O’Neill points to Greater Manchester, which has been having a very good decade, in no small part due to the vision of its civic leaders, notably Sir Howard Bernstein – ‘the Alex Ferguson of Manchester City Council’, says O’Neill – who ran the town hall from 1998 to 2017. Under his watch the city’s tram network expanded massively to cover more than 90 stations and some 57 miles across Greater Manchester. This has been fundamental to getting the city and its surrounding districts working together as a dynamic economy – good news that’s felt in Cheshire and parts of Liverpool, too.
‘There’s definitely something happening in the North West,’ O’Neill confirms over a coffee at the Arts Club in Mayfair, which feels a bit more Goldman Sachs than Northern Powerhouse. ‘You can see it in economic numbers,’ he adds, citing the regional purchaser manager index figures. ‘For two years the North West has been the strongest in the country, significantly outperforming London. I’m pretty sure when we get accurate GVA data for 2017 it’ll show something happening – the beginning.’
So rebalancing is happening?
‘It’s early, it’s small and tentative, but I think we have it.’ As a result, O’Neill reckons the North West ‘is going into Brexit on an accelerating-strengthening position, where London is actually weaker’.
As for the rest of the North, he is cautiously bullish. It hinges on infrastructure such as High Speed 2 (HS2) – the new line from London to Manchester and Leeds, due to be completed by 2032 – as well as the proposed ‘Crossrail’ for the north, now dubbed Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will halve journey times from Liverpool to Hull (currently more than three hours) and make Leeds to Manchester a 30-minute hop. ‘Investors like to follow trends, so it’s sort of building on itself,’ O’Neill opines. ‘Then when you throw in HS2 and start a bit about east-west communication, that adds more impetus because you’re talking all sorts of potentially virtuous things developing in the same way that London has for the past 60 to 70 years.’
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John Cridland is the man making Northern Powerhouse Rail happen. He’s known best for his five-year stint as head of the CBI, and it turns out that that’s how he approaches his chairmanship of Transport for the North (TfN), which as of April became responsible for airports, rail, light rail, roads, buses and ports in the North. ‘Cutting to the chase,’ Cridland states when we meet in Southwark, ‘it’s not a transport project. It’s an economic project. It’s about driving investment levels up; it’s about making international investment more attractive using connectivity as one of the ways of doing it.’
And there is work to be done. Today the economic output of an average northerner is around £5,000 below that of someone living in the South. To close that gap, Cridland’s authority has come up with an ambitious 30-year transport plan for the North costing £70 billion – ‘a run-rate of £2.3 billion a year’. In preparation, Leeds-based TfN identified four areas where the North has global excellences in business – the fields of advanced manufacturing, low carbon energy, digital and life sciences. ‘If you agglomerate those; if you connect up their supply chains and their labour markets in a way that gives boards investment options which currently chief executives wouldn’t even take to the board because connectivity isn’t there, then you’re multiplying the growth rate of already successful and international tradeable sectors,’ explains Cridland.
Need for Speed
The critical task facing TfN is building a high-speed trans-Pennine link between the HS2 stations in Manchester and Leeds. Cridland brings his wrists together and fans out his hands to show a ‘Y’: ‘Crossrail for the North is a lintel all the way across the top of the Y,’ he says. And he’d like it to be in place by 2032. ‘If you don’t build the lintel, why build the Y?’ he asks, before offering a ‘killer stat’ that out of 16 million northerners, just 10,000 are within an hour of another city by rail. If it happens, Northern Powerhouse Rail will raise that to 1.3 million. Likewise, the number of people who can get to Manchester Airport (which now offers direct flights to China) within an hour and a half rises from 4.8 million to 10 million. ‘That’s why I believe that this is an economic project,’ Cridland says. ‘It’s not about transport – I’m not a transport engineer. I’m going to change living standards in the North by giving people better options, whether they’re workers or entrepreneurs.’
One of those entrepreneurs is 38-year-old former Skipton Building Society apprentice Neil Moles. Ten years ago he astonished his boss at the Leeds-based financial firm Lawrence Scoffield by offering to buy the company. They agreed the price on a napkin over lunch. A decade later, that Leeds office (he calls it ‘the mothership’) is now the headquarters of fast-growing high-end financial and legal services firm Progeny Group, which has a handful of offices across the country. Headcount has risen from 14 to 74, and Moles says his firm is ‘on target’ to have £2 billion in assets under management by the end of 2018. And with around 40 per cent of its 1,221 HNW clients living in the North, he has a handle on where the money is.
While he agrees with the need for better east-west connections in the North, it can’t be the focus. ‘We absolutely need better infrastructure, but don’t let that be an excuse not to innovate and grow,’ says Moles with evident passion. He cites the example of one of his clients, a digital marketing company in Leeds with 50 employees: ‘They’re punching above their weight,’ he says. ‘They’ve ignored the fact that they’re in Leeds; they’ve got some international clients.’
So there are good growth stories out there – he just feels the North needs more. It also needs more self-confidence: ‘We’re not good at shouting about how good we are,’ Moles declares. ‘We’re better at moaning about infrastructure. Let’s talk about these great growth stories. Let’s not have regional awards, let’s have national awards. Let’s think outside the box instead of compartmentalising the country. We have to stop referring to the North and the South: we are one; we are 180 miles apart. In America people would laugh at this conversation.’
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After a fine meal and night at the recently opened Batman-infused Hotel Gotham in Manchester, I head out into the morning rain. Opposite is a Vivienne Westwood and a well-regarded restaurant, Rosso, owned by the ex-footballer Rio Ferdinand. I set off for what turns out to be a bit of a hike through the worsening downpour across town, out under the A57(M) ring road. Then, opposite a BMW garage, I see the home of one of Britain’s most mind-expanding and world-leading centres of excellence, the National Graphene Institute (NGI), which George Osborne opened in 2015 and where he and David Cameron brought President Xi of China when he visited.
The receptionist welcomes me. ‘It’s very Manchester weather today,’ she remarks cheerfully. Inside it’s all very low-key and there’s a sciencey, white, black and steel colour scheme going on. Upstairs I meet James Baker, the CEO of the institute, who tells me that somewhere in the building toil the two Nobel-prize winning physicists – Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov – who first isolated graphene in 2004. Between us is a bowl of sweets – individually wrapped slices of rock with the word ‘Graphene’ across the centre – somehow reinforcing the northern roots of this new material, which is famed for being 200 times stronger than steel.
‘Graphene is actually shorthand now for a whole family of two-dimensional materials,’ explains Baker, who previously oversaw BAE Systems’ technology centres. ‘Imagine the world of future where I can build, layer by layer, a material of multifunctionality – strength, mechanical strain-sensing, thermo-conductivity; you can now have a complete portfolio of new products based on your materials.’
Take an airliner’s wing: were this made incorporating graphene, it would be much lighter and stronger, reducing emissions. Next, graphene’s heat-conducting properties mean you could take heat from the engine to de-ice the wing, rather than having engineering systems in place as now – removing weight and complexity. The list goes on. Ultimately graphene will be far more disruptive once engineers start designing things with a full understanding of it. ‘Graphene is in its teenage years,’ adds Baker. ‘If you look at history – at carbon fibre and aviation or silicon and electronics – it’s 25 to 30 years from discovery through to first products or applications.’
The job of the NGI – and of the nearby Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (‘fondly called the Geek’) due to open later this year – is to shorten that and to help British industry get an appropriate slice of the pie. Next Baker employs some jargon borrowed from Nasa: its technology readiness level (TRL) scale, which goes from invention (one) to field readiness (at nine). ‘The UK has got a great reputation for one, two and three, but when it comes to development we’re not always great – the so-called valley of death,’ he says.
This is where the NGI and the new engineering centre will make a difference, by being at the centre of an ecosystem of researchers, scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, designers and industry partners, working to solve problems and figuring out how to industrialise those solutions. As a result the Geek will be ‘a practical mini-factory’, where the ‘make and break’ challenges of industrialisation will be met to reduce cost and accelerate time to market. Baker’s vision is for Manchester to become known as Graphene City, an idea inspired by Silicon Valley – with corresponding benefits for the region. Will it happen? ‘It’s a badge you inherit,’ Baker replies, but there’s no doubting his ambition to succeed.
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Meanwhile, two tall cranes a stone’s throw from the institute show the spot that will be the £235 million Royce Institute, billed as ‘the UK national centre for research and innovation of advanced materials’. Altogether it’s hard not to realise that this is a massive statement of intent. And it’s not the only one. Just 40 miles away in Sheffield, there’s the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, located on the site of Orgreave colliery, the scene of the most infamous battle of the miners’ strike. Now the likes of McLaren, Rolls-Royce, Boeing, Airbus and Siemens are working there.
I catch the tram at St Peter’s Square and cross the Irwell river to Salford, arriving ten smooth minutes later at MediaCityUK, a name which shouts in equal measure of ambition and perhaps a sense of inferiority. Here there are glass buildings emblazoned with the logos of the BBC and ITV, as well as countless residential blocks stretching along the waterfront. There’s also the Lowry, an arts centre opened by the Queen in 2000. Inside the gallery I work through a series of rooms filled with drawings and paintings by the artist, who died in 1976: often grim, but not entirely without humour, it’s obvious that the works, like the man, were the product of their time.
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At Portcullis House in Westminster, Jake Berry, the Liverpool-born Northern Powerhouse minister, is wearing a Northern Powerhouse badge on his lapel (‘I’m the new Jeremy Hunt of British politics,’ he jokes). He acknowledges my tweed flat cap by telling me he has five.
Beginning with the need to invest in TfN’s big plan, Berry notes that the government has committed £13 billion by 2021: ‘To put that in historical context, that is more money than any government in history has ever committed to northern transport.’ While he cheerily concedes that if you live in Yorkshire, then that cash currently ‘looks like a traffic jam’ on the M62, he insists that it is evidence of real government investment in northern east-west links.
Is the region on the cusp of a rebirth, I ask? ‘We’re about halfway through labour,’ the MP replies. ‘What we are seeing is the start of very exciting figures which show that rebalancing is happening. I like to think that the last 100 years have been the exception and that we are returning to what normal is.’ And the North has got a spring in its step, he believes. ‘We talk about the North having got its mojo back; you bet it’s got its mojo back. It’s really cool now to be from the North of England. People are identifying with the fact that we have created this hi-tech, exciting, globally facing economy, and they are also beginning to realise that in terms of quality of life the North of England trumps the South, particularly London, every single time because of affordability of homes, and things like the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Northumbrian coast – all on our doorstep.’
Isn’t he worried that so much of the growth is focused on the North West? He throws up his hands: ‘Isn’t it great to be in a position where we are complaining that an area of the North is growing too quickly? Wind the clock back only five years and everyone across the North was feeling miserable because London was outstripping us.’
Back at the Arts Club, Lord O’Neill is stoically optimistic about the prospects for the wider North. ‘At the minimum,’ he assures me, ‘you can say that the next century won’t be as bad as the last.’ (Admittedly that’s not saying very much.) He continues: ‘Once something starts – I know from working for 30 years in finance – once people smell a game going on, where you can make money, that just creates its own virtuous circularity. I wouldn’t underestimate that.’
There’s something else O’Neill is banking on: local talent. Forty years ago this Sheffield University graduate left the North and never looked back. Things are changing. ‘I call it the buzz,’ he says. ‘Particularly for younger people. You break that cycle that’s gone on ever since I left university – you don’t just automatically assume, “What time’s the next train to London? That’s the rest of my life.” You start to create this idea that you can have a prosperous future without being in London.’
Which is why this ‘objective Remainer’ believes getting the rebalancing of the economy right is more important than Brexit. ‘I would passionately argue [that] dealing with the inter-regional and intergenerational productivity problems [is] way more important than Brexit. Way more important,’ he says, noting that Britain’s productivity growth and regional imbalances have worsened over the past 46 years. ‘All else being equal, Brexit is not helpful to the UK becoming the biggest European economy by 2050 [which O’Neill predicted in his 2011 book The Growth Map]. However, if the shock of it forces us to deal with these other issues, then of course we will.’
That’s right folks, you read right: buy northern and make Britain great again. Eight decades after The Road to Wigan Pier, the narrative has just been flipped.
This article first appeared in the May/June edition of Spear’s magazine. Buy your copy or subscribe here
Alec Marsh is editor at Spear’s