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May the North be with you
Local Government Chronicle – 28 January 2005

For the Northern Way to be a success, it needs more than good intentions, says Mark Smulian

There it lies across northern England, looking as though someone at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has spilled a drink across a map.

The Northern Way is the Sustainable Communities Plan's belated programme for the three north regions, announced last February - almost a year after the plans for growth in the south-east were unveiled.

It stretches from Liverpool to Hull and up to Newcastle, with a leg the other end to Central Lancashire. And it relies on a concept untried in Britain: the city region.

True, there is a steering group drawn from the three regional development agencies and assemblies, but that alone cannot make councils collaborate in this endeavour.

The idea is that it would be sensible to plan growth around the leading cities, since they are the main economic drivers, even if their economic 'footprint' sprawls untidily across established boundaries.

Take the Leeds city region as an example. This includes all of West Yorkshire, but also Barnsley in South Yorkshire, plus York and a large chunk of rural North Yorkshire. Elsewhere, High Peak BC, which is in the East Midlands, has asked for membership of the Manchester region. Halton BC, formerly part of Cheshire, has joined the Merseyside equivalent.

The danger of overlap and local rivalry is large enough that a team from Salford University has probed city region governance in a report for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Its conclusion is that councils need incentives to make city region collaboration a success, and the government needs to be more fully engaged.

Professor Simon Marvin, director of Salford's Centre for Sustainable Urban & Regional Futures and one of the report's authors, points to the very different support enjoyed within Whitehall by the Northern Way and the Thames Gateway.

"If you look at the Thames Gateway, it is well placed in central government, with civil servants looking after it and a cabinet committee," he says.

"If the Northern Way is going to deliver, there needs to be an engagement with Whitehall and, at the moment, it is difficult to see that. It needs a body of officials there who understand it and are working on it."

Prof Marvin says the city region concept is crucial to the Northern Way's success. He explains: "These are bigger than subregions and spill over from cities into travel-to-work areas. You have somehow got to get them to mesh but without having the governance structures to do it."

Success in this means abandoning the mindset encouraged in the 1990s under which councils compete against each other for regeneration funds, and encouraging them instead to embrace collaboration.

"What we need are incentives to collaboration, possibly fiscal incentives for those councils that demonstrate they are collaborating," Prof Marvin says. "They need to collaborate around their specialisms - competition cannot be the driver."

However he thinks any institutional reorganisation of local government would be "a disaster", given the time and energy it would absorb.

"The Northern Way requires city regions to develop a vision of strengths and weaknesses and that is quite ambitious for diverse regions with multiple local government units," he says.

"I don't think the scale of ambition comes across. There has got to be a major Whitehall agenda."

His report points out the UK lacks any experience of promoting large growth zones and there are no overseas models easily adaptable to the Northern Way.

It also paints a stark picture of the economic distance the north must travel, stating: "The overall trend is toward the concentration of economic weight and productivity within the expanding London super-region."

The figures are daunting. According to the Salford report, if the south-east continues to grow near its rate in the late 1990s, the Northern Way area would need growth at 3% above present projections merely to avoid falling further behind.

Halving that gap would need additional growth of 15% and closing the gap entirely would require 30% growth.

"Our calculations suggest it will be four times easier to achieve any of these targets if the necessary growth takes place within city regions rather than elsewhere," the Salford report found.

Opinions differ about how well supported the Northern Way is in Whitehall and how it should be organised.

Richard Leese (Lab), leader of Manchester City Council, says the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities has a long history of planning across the former county of Greater Manchester, and is the north's strongest city region body.

Mr Leese sees no need for a cabinet committee, arguing that it would add little to the strong links forged with the ODPM and Treasury. He also rejects structural change and believes voluntary collaboration between councils is adequate to work up the policy options to put to government or implement themselves.

One example is the need for better surface links from northern cities to Manchester airport, a demand which emerged from research by the councils.

"Clearly, we cannot do that ourselves but we need to have plans prepared to put to the next comprehensive spending review," says Mr Leese.

He cites the housing market renewal pilots as evidence of a more joined-up approach to regeneration. In the past, renewal projects in northern inner cities were notorious for creating jobs only for those newly employed to move away to more attractive areas, so conferring little lasting benefit on places with weak economies.

This "filling a bath with the plug out" approach must be replaced by efforts to create "neighbourhoods of choice" in inner areas and older industrial towns, Mr Leese says.

"We have found that just creating jobs led to people getting jobs and leaving for the suburbs, so we need to see a physical transformation of the area as well," Mr Leese says. "Unless the physical work is done too, we will see a flight to the suburbs."

Inevitably, political disputes have arisen over an idea originated by a Labour deputy prime minister as Labour's grip has slackened on northern councils after last June's elections. Mark Harris (Lib Dem), who holds the rotating leadership of the Lib Dem/ Conservative/ Green coalition at Leeds City Council, says: "Having thought up the Northern Way, the ODPM should now let the regions get on with it. Anything that comes from the ODPM will be less useful than the regions looking at their own requirements."

Mr Harris says the will is there among councils to develop the city regions and that neighbouring councils "accept Leeds is the economic driver".

He adds: "The sensitivities of the local authorities around Leeds have to be recognised and we do not want people to think they are being taken over by Leeds".

City regions, as a concept, are common elsewhere in Europe, and Mr Harris cites Lyon, Frankfurt and Milan as those against which Leeds should measure itself.

He is adamant the Northern Way is something the north should nurture itself.

"God helps those who help themselves, and we have to look to Europe for bilateral links that bypass London," he says.