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Northern Powerhouse Mk III
Kasper de Graaf, 29 June 2019

This article first appeared as the foreword to the weekly Northern Powerhouse round-up published by Quatro on 28 June 2019

The Northern Powerhouse Mk III is just around the corner, but how will it compare with its predecessors?

The prime minister’s newfound appetite for legacy building won’t determine that; and her successor’s attitude may prove to be only marginally more relevant. The growing voice of cities, backed up by devolution settlements already enacted, has introduced a new reality on the ground – maybe not yet the new politics espoused by northern mayors, but new calculations certainly, and a direction of travel that is not easy to reverse.

A new arena

When candidate Andy Burnham took part in Design Manchester’s annual Great Debate four months after the referendum, he said that “devolution in England was not conceived to be the answer to the referendum result, but we must now embrace it as such, and use it to give people solutions that speak more directly to them, focused on them and their needs.” Whether you take that as giving voice to the forgotten wastelands of the north, or as creating a new political arena when British democracy is under existential threat from nationalism, it is a truth that unites Remainers and Brexiteers more meaningfully than national Labour’s painful vacillation.

If our aim is to rebalance the economy so that the communities of the north can thrive on their undoubted merits, then in Greater Manchester at least the job is far from done. The GM Independent Prosperity Review identifies poor productivity, health inequalities, underperforming schools and inadequate transport integration as persistent obstacles.

Government has a role in this, with innovation and infrastructure funding, partnership mechanisms and further devolution of powers. Just as important is how the cities respond – and Manchester is embracing the challenge. The freshly minted Greater Manchester Industrial Strategy focuses on health innovation, advanced materials, digital and creative industries and an ambitious target to make the city region carbon neutral by 2038. The strategy has a firm evidence base in the Independent Prosperity Review, but how it’s implemented will determine how well the objectives of a liveable, green and equitable city, a great place to grow up, get on and get old, are achieved.

Design is key

Just as in the first industrial revolution, so now in the fourth, design is key to achieving both economic and social objectives. The GM Industrial Strategy talks about design for public services, business models, skills and work systems, new products, services and processes, transport, healthcare and more. It commits to ensuring that advanced technical and design skills are available to support manufacturing growth. It warns of serious design challenges to address if the carbon neutral target is to be achieved.

The Manchester Design Manifesto, launched by Sir Richard Leese at the Design Manchester festival last autumn, promotes a partnership between the city and its civic partners, the design community and economic stakeholders to leverage the power of design to support that implementation, and to share Manchester’s stories and experiences with other cities around the world.

Numerous examples of creativity and innovation are springing up: in advanced materials, with disruptor brands like Prevayl and 7L working with graphene wearables; in digital infrastructure ventures such as CNI, the co-operative fibre infrastructure network that started in Tameside; in co-design initiatives like House by Urban Splash.

Manchester places great value on doing things differently: design is how. It’s giving people “solutions that speak more directly to them”. It’s taking control of how we get to the desired destination. And the more the great cities of the north succeed, the more it reinforces those calculations in Westminster and Whitehall, that supporting a balanced economy is best for everyone – including London.