Manchester. Liverpool. Leeds. Birmingham. Sheffield. Newcastle. These great cities of the North of England conjure up images of industry and innovation; of cities that helped drive this country to become a global economic superpower through their trade, industry, pioneering innovation and entrepreneurship.
Too often, though, the term 'northern' evokes a sense of the North-South divide, and the cultural, social and economic disparities that have grown between the two halves of England.
There is certainly data to illustrate some of these disparities. More than a third of the UK's entire output is currently generated in London and the South East. There are also significant differences in regional productivity – for example, London's output per head is higher than anywhere else in the country, with productivity more than double that of the North East. Although regional imbalances shrank in the post-war period, they have been rising again since the 1970s.
But this narrative fails to capture some of the extraordinary success stories of the northern economy.
Today Manchester hosts some of the country's most innovative creative and media businesses in vibrant locations such as The Northern Quarter and MediaCityUK. In 2012, Manchester-based scientists received the Nobel Prize for their pioneering work in the 'super-material' graphene. Leeds is a renowned centre for multinational professional and financial services companies. And one of the remarkable success stories of the UK economy in recent years has been its car industry; which has grown on the back of internationally competitive and productive plants in the North East and Midlands.
As growth in London and the South East has roared ahead, such successes haven't been recognised enough.
But recently there has been a noticeable change in the tone of the rhetoric, as policymakers appear to have recognised that there is a real opportunity to build on northern strengths, with the help of new powers devolved from central government. These policy measures – framed as an attempt at creating a 'Northern Powerhouse' – promise to devolve more power to northern authorities, and give them greater say in how public funds are spent locally.
The UK has traditionally had one of the most centralised models of governance in the developed world, and the fact it has some of the largest regional inequalities is probably not a coincidence. The hope is that greater regional – and specifically northern – powers will lead to more efficient outcomes at a local level and for northern successes to continue to flourish and future ones created.
This shift in public policy is important, but, of course, what will determine whether these measures succeed is whether they incentivise and enable growth in private sector, particularly in areas of the North where growth has been less strong. The potential gains are significant, but only if they provide greater opportunities for northern businesses and business people to create the jobs and the innovation required to drive and sustain growth.
Boosting output in the North would benefit to the entire country, and would significantly boost overall GDP growth and incomes. Our research shows that, if the North East, North West, Yorkshire and Humber, and the Midlands had collectively grown at the same pace as London and the South East since 2008, the UK would be £30bn better off by now. This is by no means insignificant – £30bn roughly represents the annual output of an economy as large as Northern Ireland.
Stronger growth in the North would arguably also help protect against an over-reliance on London's financial services and property sectors. And it could ease some of the strains on infrastructure and services in the capital by incentivising more migration north.
The hope is that a 'Northern Powerhouse', driven by more effective public policy and a more dynamic business environment, can do this and more. If so, distinctions between north and south would diminish, and there would surely be many new successes to celebrate.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.