Be A Voice: Re-Assessing the North-South Divide & Northern Powerhouse

By Campaign Agent Lyell Tweed

The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ strategy was originally announced by George Osborne during the 2010-2015 Coalition Government in order to boost economic growth in the North of England. It was re-emphasised during the 2015-2017 Conservative government to take away the economic bias from the South East, namely London, but many see it waning under the current Government. The notion of a North-South divide stretches back to medieval times; however, a tangible Political and Economic divide may have been deepening ever since the de-industrialisation of the North during the Thatcher era, with disastrous consequences for real people. While George Osborne is now safely back in the capital, people across the North still struggle to get to work on outdated trains that never seem to show up.

Damning reports in recent years have shown how the North is left behind in many vital areas, most importantly health and education. A study by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership stated that pupils in the North of England are on average one GCSE grade behind comparable pupils in the south. Also stated was that a quarter of secondary schools in the region are judged by Ofsted to be inadequate or in need of improvement. Another report by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, highlighted educational discrepancies between the regions. The report showed that the amount of children claiming free school meals was higher in the North and that the amount of people going into higher education was at its lowest in the North. There was also found to be a major funding gap between schools in London and other regions in the UK. Although these sorts of statistics cannot and should not be labelled as just a debate of North vs South it highlights many of the key issues involved, and why many see an embedded North-South divide in UK politics.

In terms of health, a study by the University of Manchester showed how GP practices in the North of England are deprived of vital resources while practices in areas such as London are comparatively overfunded. This is due to the ‘Carr-Hill Formula’ which calculates how much funding practices should get. However, this is now outdated and not fit for purpose with successive governments avoiding the funding gap between the regions. This is particularly alarming when many reports suggest that people are 20% more likely to die early in the North of England even with improving mortality rates across the country as a whole. It doesn’t end here. The Quality Care Commission revealed that 15 of the 20 worst areas for social care were in the North, with more reports stating that life expectancy is at its lowest in the North-West (77.9 years), while those in the South-East have the highest (80.5 years). Unsurprisingly these reports all called for rapid investment in healthcare for the North.

Away from health and education many other alarming issues arise. Transport in the North is abysmal. Decades of underinvestment has seen Northern Rail fail again and again with outdated and packed trains causing havoc for commuter. A train from Manchester to Leeds (approximately 40 miles) can take well over an hour, whereas a train from London Euston to Manchester (approximately 180 miles) takes just over 2 hours. This is without even mentioning the rest of the region. This was confounded recently when the promised electrification of the line between Manchester and Leeds, which would have alleviated some of the problem, was shelved. Whilst this was shelved Crossrail 2 was given the go ahead (before Crossrail 1 is even complete) in London where there is already much more transport investment per head than the northern regions. This may go a long way to show where the bias lies.

The idea that HS2 will solve all of these problems is naïve. Interconnectivity in the North is required in order to increase prosperity, possibly HS3 (high speed rail between Liverpool, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle) not simply another railway from the South. If anything the idea of a high speed train from the North to London only increases the claim that the business of England happens exclusively in London. The fact that Doncaster has had a high speed rail link to London for many years but still remains one of the poorest towns in the country is a stark example of this naïve thinking. It places too much focus on the big cities in the North, namely Manchester and Leeds, without much consideration for the region as a whole.    

So what does this all mean? The North has always been considered a Labour stronghold with the Conservatives taking the lion’s share of the South and rural areas. From an oversimplified point of view the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ strategy and ‘City Region deals’ may look like a canny ploy by the Conservatives to make general election gains. An original promise for billions of pounds towards science, transport and infrastructure may have looked like a promising one. But the increasing divide between transport services, infrastructure and general living standards outside of these main city centres is not something to be taken lightly. With job automation posing a higher threat to the people of the North; and with Brexit posing a particular threat to the Northern regions it should be time for the government in Westminster to take this North-South divide seriously and deal with the issues. Years of promising a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and promoting localism whilst slashing local services in the region has only gone to increase the idea of a political and social North-South divide. Increased Devolution is a good start to this process but we are still a long way from achieving true regional equality.

Sources & Further Reading:

  • Jennifer Williams, ‘This is what the Tories ‘Northern Powerhouse’ really looks like: a mess’, The Guardian (1 June 2018).

  • James Quinn, ‘Four Reasons why the Northern Powerhouse won’t happen’, The Telegraph (8 July 2015).

  • Amy Walker, ‘Rail Chaos in North of England Costs Economy £38m, Report Says’, The Guardian (30 July 2018).

  • Pippa Crerar, ‘Theresa May woos North-East with Powerhouse Talk’, The Guardian (23 July 2018).

  • Andy Bounds, ‘Northern Powerhouse ‘too focused on Manchester’’, The Financial Times (21 March 2018).

  • Jenny Scott, ‘HS2 and the new North-South divide’, BBC News (20 August 2014).

  • ‘MP calls for more Yorkshire travel investment’, BBC News (7 November 2017).

  • Tom Airey, ‘The North of England’s road and rail commuter woes’, BBC News (16 January 2016).

  • Tony Payne, ‘HS2 and the myth that wealth will trickle up from London’, The Conversation (22 May 2014).

  • Henry Overman, ‘Osborne needs to look beyond the north-south divide if he’s serious about sharing the wealth’, The Conversation (27 March 2015).

  • ‘MPs call for £100bn Northern Transport investment’, BBC News (2 August 2018).

  • Andrew Mycock and Arianna Giovannini, ‘The Northern Powerhouse needs to be more than a slogan’, The Conversation (10 May 2016).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons