It’s obviously important that the Chancellor, in his first speech since the election, talked about his commitment to a ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Looking back at the progress made since his first speech on the subject less than one year ago he summarised his direction of travel:
“Over a long period, under governments of all political colours, our economy has become unbalanced and our capital city has come to dominate more and more. The answer to that is not to pull London down – it’s to all our benefit that we have one of the great global cities in these Isles. What we need to do is build up the rest of our country. In the last couple of years that has started to happen. But to really close that long term growth gap, we need to take further radical action.”
He referenced the transport analysis and infrastructure proposals that are at its spine:
“We’ve created with your help Transport for the North and started to develop detailed plans for high-speed rail east-west across the north. We are making record investment in transport which will see the key roads upgraded, and the north’s railways improved with new trains and electrification.”
And then he announced the government’s intentions to change the institutional structures within which such change will take place:
“On 27 May, the Queen’s Speech will be read. It will include a new City Devolution Bill. This law will pave the way for Greater Manchester – and, importantly, other cities as well, to take greater control and responsibility over all the key things that make a city work, from transport and housing to skills, and key public services like health and social care. “
Now my purpose in this article is not to take issue with the form (city mayors) and adequacy of the devolution being offered (we can return to that). It’s rather to ask about the opportunity created by this legislation; by the appointment of Greg Clark as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (to replace Eric Pickles), who was David Cameron’s shadow Climate Secretary before entering government on 2010; and by the appointment also of Jim O’Neill, ‘Chair of the City Growth Commission, whose work has inspired the thinking behind the Northern Powerhouse’ and now Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, ‘a brilliant new Minister to help make devolution and the Northern Powerhouse happen’ – to quote the Chancellor.
We clearly have a new parallelogram of forces here. But what will it achieve? According to George Osborne:
“Here’s the deal: We will hand power from the centre to cities to give you greater control over your local transport, housing, skills and healthcare. And we’ll give the levers you need to grow your local economy and make sure local people keep the rewards.”
What’s missing from that list? Low Carbon! Energy Efficiency! Green Growth! Let’s take that second sentence and just substitute a few words without at all violating its spirit or wider government policy:
‘And we’ll give the levers you need to reduce your local carbon emissions and energy use, increase your low carbon competitiveness, and make sure local people get the benefits and the jobs.’
Now a glib response that the powers on transport and housing might result in reduced carbon emissions is just not good enough, because they could just as easily act to increase them; and the policy priority ‘to grow your local economy’ without the prescription that this has to be green growth will most probably do just that. Certainly what happened under the 2010-15 government was that undifferentiated ‘economic growth’ was everything, and ‘low carbon growth’ and ‘local carbon reduction’ were forgotten.
So surely we do need an explicit green dimension to the Northern Powerhouse, and since it appears to have been forgotten so far then we will need over the coming months to lobby hard to see that it gets included. In the powers of the Cities Devolution Bill. In the National Infrastructure Plan so that it encompasses – as it does not at the moment – the massive residential energy efficiency retrofit that is critical to reduced emissions and local green growth and employment. And in the thinking and programmes of Greg Clarke and Jim O’Neill, who are both eminently capable of understanding the significance of this great ‘win win’ opportunity.