The climate of Cannes in spring might seem more appealing than that of Manchester. However, right now, the North of England is arguably generating more heat than the South of France thanks largely to the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’, one of the key topics of discussion at MIPIM, a major international property event.
Despite the fact that the concept has been debated at length for some time, this year there appears to be a greater willingness to capitalise on the momentum and attention which such talk generates.
All the focus in France coincides with a series of significant announcements regarding advances in the road, rail and research infrastructure serving communities from the Irish Sea to the North Sea and stretching from the Peak District to Hadrian’s Wall.
You know that the subject appeals to power and money brokers when George Osborne prepares to throw his weight behind related projects in his Budget and media such as the Financial Times produce special reports on what the plans might actually mean (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d50af8b4-dbbe-11e5-98fd-06d75973fe09.html#axzz42zTUnhmB).
I’m writing this blog having recently attended a fascinating panel discussion involving the leaders of city councils in a number of principal northern towns and cities, including Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield.
More than in previous editions of MIPIM, they presented a single, common and very clear determination to transform talk into broad concrete reality.
Whilst the united front suggests that the north is committed to developing initiatives capable of increasing jobs, I believe that there remain critical gaps in terms of action and intention to be filled in. As a number of panel participants outlined, the north’s combined potential cannot be fully realised in either domestic or global isolation.
We have to be able to connect far more quickly and simply to innovation and improvement spanning the UK and the continent. Otherwise, we risk becoming almost a super-region, economically powerful yet not completely integrated to our British and European partners.
The burning issue of the UK’s future status in Europe is also important. Will the north’s ambitions wither if the country decides to leave the EU? Certainly, the tone of those at the panel discussion felt that ‘Fixit’ rather than ‘Brexit’ would be more helpful to our objectives.
That position is not just important from the perspective of political certainty. I agree with certain of the speakers at the Cannes session that investment is critical to making real the northern dreams.
An EU exit would possibly call into question whether Europe might contribute anything to the cost, just as the ongoing financial turmoil in the Far East could undermine efforts to recruit funders from China, for instance.
The devil, as always, is in the detail. Even so, there seems to be an almost tangible appetite to follow through on the groundwork and make sure that the plug isn’t pulled on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.