I am limbering up to make a presentation about the Northern Gateway Development Zone at the Northern Powerhouse conference at Manchester Central on 21 and 22 February, with several hundred of your closest friends present. And I find myself asking, and not for the first time: What is the Northern Powerhouse, then? Why does it matter? Who is responsible for it?
And it gets worse! As a regeneration practitioner, and existentialist urbanist, I continually grapple with the fundamental questions as to what the North of England is all about. And are the challenges of the past and present insurmountable? These are seriously among the most vexed questions facing anyone in in our field.
But ever since George Osborne first articulated the idea of the Northern Powerhouse, it has truly captured the public imagination. Nearly three years on, it is beginning to meet its potential to become a hugely exciting and beneficial opportunity for a wide cross-section of communities in the North of England. Even though the Northern Powerhouse is nought but an umbrella concept, merely a flag of convenience really, providing definition to strategies and policies in the public and private sector with the overall objective of contributing to the growth of the economy of the North.
And it matters. It matters because economic growth and wealth creation across the 11 LEP areas that define the Northern Powerhouse, and the wellbeing of the communities they house, is essential to the economic future of our nation. It matters because people and businesses living and working in the North have a natural desire to see progress. It matters because it is only fair.
So good on this conference’s organisers, who are looking to focus Northern Powerhouse activity and energy on opportunities and solutions. They have got under the skin of the social and cultural diversity of the North as well as identifying what is clearly an unexploited business opportunity. Good for them spotting that a strategy to engage more broadly with the business community was needed. On the back of this, the guys have a shed-load of government ministers and other great-and-good schlepping up to boost the campaign. And they are placing special focus on the private sector, recognising that the ongoing commitment of the present government to invest in the North of England will never work without a quantum leap in investment from the business community.
One of my oldest and dearest friends is one of the conference organising team (I hope that this fact doesn’t show too much in this piece, although I solemnly promise I would have been playing nicely in any case. I am nothing if not a true believer) and he says that although there may be nothing new under the sun, much of the value in any commercial idea is timing. He believes that, in the case of the Northern Powerhouse, that time is now. You know, I reckon he may be right. And certainly as far as the Northern Gateway Partnership is concerned (covering a huge chunk of Staffordshire and Cheshire, surrounding the prospective HS2 interchange at Crewe), in my role as its independent chair and cheerleader, I intend to do all I can to help.
Whether or not you are at the Manchester conference next week, you should watch for its increased impact in the post-Brexit aftermath. And keep an eye on its knock-on at MIPIM, and elsewhere. As my old mate so wisely says, much of the value in any commercial idea is timing. The time for the Northern Powerhouse is now.