News & Insights | Posted December 17, 2021
Life in a Northern Town
Expert opinion — Henri Murison, Northern Powerhouse Partnership
The intellectual cul-de-sac of the towns vs cities debate has gathered pace in the thinktank world over the last few years. At the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, we believe that towns are helped — not hindered — by links to nearby cities. Our recent report ‘Life in a Northern Town’ focuses on how we can level up towns by driving them forward with their nearby cities.
To level up our northern towns we must focus on helping local people access well-paid, skilled jobs in order to drive up wages and productivity, driving devolution to Metro Mayors able to invest in transport infrastructure, education and skills, as well as innovation backed by Government.
Since the 2019 General Election, there has been significant political discussion on ways to improve the fortunes of so-called ‘left-behind’ towns such as Workington, through the lens of the Red Wall electoral battleground. Too much of it has focused on short-term, superficial changes that address problems of these towns in isolation — rather than in the context of their regions.
Our report looked in details at the economies of Bury in Greater Manchester, Goole on the Humber and Blyth in the North East, three places each with its own unique economic strengths and challenges.
Blyth — the future centre of the North’s green energy revolution
In this blog I want to focus on Blyth which represents a credible and critical opportunity for the North in helping lead the Net Zero transition. Previous investment in its assets over the last decades (including the catapult centre) are the centre of its potential today. The Town Deal plans alongside the wider work of the local authority, North of Tyne Combined Authority and Local Enterprise Partnership have all been building towards the current investment landscape. The Gigafactory development by Britishvolt — their first in the UK — is a prime example of this.
The planned investment in a passenger rail connection between South East Northumberland and Newcastle upon Tyne is as critical for bringing people into the area, as creating viable commuting connections into the city centre. Attracting and retaining businesses will be key, with the town already benefiting from Tharsus as a local employer with significant knowledge intensive employment in R&D.
Levelling Up Skills and R&D
The big opportunity for the government is to rebalance innovation funding as we increase spending on R&D to 2.7% of GDP, with innovation deals struck with those parts of the country where there is clear demand from industry and world class innovation assets. A Net Zero led deal for the North is a huge opportunity — drawing on the world class research undertaken in the North East at Newcastle University and elsewhere, exploiting technology to enable decarbonisation across the UK and around the world.
If we are to address the North-South divide them we must also level up on skills. Blyth has a bold approach to prepare secondary school children in STEM, with their ambitious skills provision plans unlocked in their town deal. The connection to the city region means assets beyond the immediate locality, whether they be FE colleges or universities, can be drawn in and drawn on. Through devolution the levers to control the system must be handed over, with ambitions aligned to the innovation ecosystems which are created.
New Year, New Blyth
Blyth is a town of opportunity but it’s vital that resources are matched against need, and economic regeneration at scale must focus on programmes that ensure jobs can go to local people. Blyth is a credible and critical opportunity for the North — and 2022 could be the year we see the investment in the town’s assets start to come to fruition.
Henri Murison, Director, Northern Powerhouse Partnership