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SERC/Urban and Spatial Programme Policy Paper
Powerhouse of Cards? Understanding the 'Northern Powerhouse'
Neil Lee
January 2016
Paper No' SERCPP014:
Full Paper (pdf)

JEL Classification: R1; R12; R58

Tags: agglomeration; rebalancing; northern powerhouse; north-south divide

The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is the UK government’s latest attempt to reduce regional disparities. By bringing together the cluster of cities in the North of England, the aim is to create an agglomeration with the scale to counterbalance London. To achieve this, policymakers have focused on four areas – transport, devolution, science and innovation, and culture. This paper summarises and critically reviews the Northern Powerhouse. While sympathetic to the basic idea, it argues that the Northern Powerhouse has become an increasingly fuzzy concept. It can be understood both as an economic development strategy, to help guide policymakers, and a political brand, giving focus to disparate and often pre-existing policies. As a strategy, it has meant some new resources and powers for the North and represents a partial return of interventionist approaches to local economic development. But it is geographically fuzzy, with funding insufficient to achieve its vague but ambitious aims. Instead, the Northern Powerhouse has become a political brand - used to brand policy interventions in a scattergun fashion, including some which pre-date the term or would have happened anyway. The result is a fuzzy policy agenda which is increasingly disconnected from the initial theoretical concept.