A northern powerhouse: reviving the North of England

“The Green strategy for northern renewal must authentically empower the people of the north to drive policy and strategies for themselves. This is not mysticism – it is learning the lessons of history.” Chris Nash explains how the economic divide between north and south has come about and how Green policy could be the solution. 


Preston in 1904
Preston in 1904
Chris Nash

The recent letter by the so-called ‘red wall’ group of Tory MPs, who are raising the case for policies to boost the economies of their northern constituencies, is the latest sign of the economic fault-line in our country – between a south where global, free-market capitalism is ‘working’ (but in limiting and damaging ways) and a north that still lives in a post-industrial shadow, and where these same capitalist forces are destroying lives. 

It is essential that Greens have both a vision and a strategy for not only the revival of the north of Britain, but for enabling the area in the future to be a roadmap for our new eco-society.

Firstly, we have to strongly resist the siren strategies of Conservative and Labour Parties, which are both offering the outmoded model of the ‘northern powerhouse’. Even the name of this proposal should ring alarm bells. It’s a nostalgic echo of the nineteenth century. What we hear from both Left and Right are the ‘same olds’ of infrastructure investment. They still see the problems in terms of a past when canals, roads and rail did indeed bring economic prosperity – but in unsustainable ways, which, at the same time, led to environmental catastrophe. 

Also fundamental to this idea of the ‘powerhouse’ are outdated ideas about the distribution of power in society. It continues to work around the idea of a powerful ‘few’ and a ‘trickle down’ to the many. 

We all know the reality: parasitic capital will flow into the area to take advantage of whatever opportunities short-term interventions create, and then flow straight back out again when more favourable conditions for profits exist elsewhere. To be even more cynical, for the round of a few elections, the illusions of the ‘powerhouse’ will all be in place to attract headlines and floating voters. 

The Green strategy for northern renewal must authentically empower the people of the north to drive such policy and strategies for themselves. This is not mysticism – it is learning the lessons of history. 

The first industrial revolution was a transformative event not because of venture capitalists, but because it grew from the ingenuity of dissenting, self-taught engineers such as Abraham Darby. Furthermore, we should never forget the examples of those such as Robert Owen, who, through their local knowledge and experiences, were able to propose early examples of communitarian solutions to the problems that they saw.

So what should Greens be doing now to sow the seeds of this organic re-growth of the north? 

The first is to campaign relentlessly for genuine improvements in the redistribution of educational resources. Generation after generation, the southern areas of Britain reproduce their economic power through education. What this means on the ground is that good teachers from the Midlands and the North are drawn away to teach in the South by an array of factors – some material, some related to quality of life. I should know – I was one of them! 

This internal ‘brain-drain’ in our country can and must be reversed. It will not be achieved by academy chains or free schools. It will be achieved when a clearly articulated sense of vocation is matched by decent salaries and decent prospects. 

The next current priority is to keep lighting the fuse paper of regionalism. The example of Germany should continue to inspire us. One of the critical reasons why Germany has come through this coronavirus crisis better than Britain is because it has not been crippled by the corrupting centralisation of power that afflicts us. We need to let go of power and let it flow to the right levels. 

For me, this means organic, representative citizens’ assemblies that take full advantage of the new connectivity of the internet to empower ordinary people to get involved. Of course, alongside this we must re-scale our cities and towns into communities where people feel that they have a stake and a say in what goes on. I’m certainly not advocating a return to religiosity, but the old model of the Parish, Mosque, Gurdwara or Synagogue shows the potential of enabling active communities at the local level and then joining them into larger and larger families. 

Again, we can look back to history to help us look forward. Another critical ingredient of the industrial revolution was the fact that the religious idea of ‘dissent’ drew people of the Midlands and the North together into communities from which change was made. Alliances between faiths also reminds us that we need to both respect diversity and put it practically at the heart of the process of growth.

The final priority that I would like to propose is to keep coming back to the value of the environment and the land. When the Romantic poets wanted a vision of a new Albion, they didn’t head to Thames Ditton (or whatever the then-equivalent of the stockbroker belt was). They headed to the Lake District to experience the sublime. However, I shouldn’t need to argue with any Green about the necessity of rewilding our lives for health and balance. 

Again, there are ironic lessons from the COVID-19 crisis. What we saw when the epidemic hit was an instinctive urge for people to flee from the cities and into whatever bit of nature they could access. To some extent, this is counter intuitive, as the best health facilities are found in cities. But whether it was a day on the beach at Bournemouth or a stroll in the Brecon Beacons, our Tao – our inner sense of the flow of things – told us to commune with nature.

This idea tells us something very different about the potential ‘power’ in this new northern powerhouse. I live and work in China, where a very interesting process is taking place. China is re-creating itself as the model sustainable culture and society of the future. Enormous sums are being invested in the development of eco-cities to replace the unsustainable mega-cities that have been engines of progress in the past. But what is so important about this transformation is that China’s ‘north’, for which you have to understand the rural western provinces such as Guizhou and Yunnan, are an organic part of this change process, not marginal recipients of ‘trickle down’ benefits. 

There are a myriad of ways in which this is happening but I’ll highlight two from my experience. In the remote south-western town of Xishuangbanna, a unique hospital has been created. Led by local people, it provides services based on local health practices – much of it herbal. Not only is this a source of pride to local people and sustains local knowledge and wisdom, it also attracts interest and money from an international clientele. This money flows directly into further protecting and enhancing the natural resources that underpin it. Now, that’s what I call a virtuous cycle. 

Along the same lines, the area of Pu’er nearby has established a University of Tea Culture. This gives value to centuries-old traditions in the area, draws in funding to improve local environments and is a powerful enabler for local people who are now involved in the creation of innovative and lucrative tea-based products. Through 5G internet technology, these intensely local enterprises are connecting their goods and services with the cities, further reinforcing messages about sustainable change across the whole country.

Greens: as we speak, our fellow citizens in Manchester, Bradford, Middlesbrough and too many post-industrial areas are at the front line of the tragic inequalities exposed by coronavirus. Once again, Tories and Labour are pushing short-term fixes. It’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and get on with the more complex but urgent business of working alongside our fellow citizens to empower them to help themselves, led by our ecological vision and values.