Northern house power

We need a new polity of globalism, not ethnocentric regionalism.

Steve Hanson
5 April 2016

Traces of city centre surgery. Steve Hanson.

Manchester citizens will know that the city centre floor has been ripped up and made anew. For a while, the very ground seemed to be unstable, as though the laws of physics had suddenly buckled. The city centre map altered every day. I took a dozen different detours into Victoria station over a few weeks.

Here, briefly, was a microcosm of the wider situation on the island of Great Britain, as the political maps were torn up again and again, with the coming to power of the Conservatives in May 2015, after the failure of the Scottish bid for independence turned into a rebellion, against Labour, against the neoconservative middle ground, against decades of suffocating voicelessness.

BIS, the Northern Powerhouse office in Sheffield, recently announced that it was relocating to London, a move described in bitterly ironic terms. That move seems to reveal what the Northern Powerhouse is, government deployed rhetoric, a site-specific lie.

The move seems like a defeatist one, an admission that the Northern Powerhouse was a flimsy idea all along. The Northern Powerhouse was, in many ways, washed away in the December 2015 floods, as many people in the north spent Boxing Day bailing themselves out of disaster, rather than focusing on the seasonal leftovers.

It is not difficult to give the lie to the Northern Powerhouse. The wavering steel production and the closure of the last pit, as fracking licenses were handed out, all made our role as critics of the Northern Powerhouse much less necessary.

But it is precisely this rupture between The House in the south, and our houses in the north, that we need to explore. Right at the moment central government began to describe Manchester as the creative heart of the island, the Manchester building the Rogue Collective work in is being sold off, in a mirror of earlier struggles around Knott Mill. Rogue are still the largest collective arts studio group outside London. Not for long, perhaps.

A row has also flared up over the plans to move the Royal Photographic Society archive to London, from the Media Museum in Bradford. In truth, huge amounts of media and science heritage have already been whisked away to a vast hangar in Wiltshire, over the last five years.

Peter Burke, explaining renaissance narratives, described how they are often Janus-faced, with the 'players' dominating the discourses, and consequently many records of the period. Manchester has also been described as positive and negative at the same time, a glass both half full and empty. It is a narrative that flares up occasionally, a set of pleats in the fabric of the city's history. The demolition of the Hulme flats, the post-1996 redevelopment: Manchester is woefully backwards unless 'something is done'. R.J. Williams explained this beautifully in his introduction to 'Life Is Good In Manchester'.

It seems that we have arrived at yet another fold. Many of the Northern Powerhouse and devo-north articles contain this default logical floor, of Manchester as a problem to be corrected. But Manchester is growing and taking off. So we need to look at both views of the Northern Powerhouse. We need to examine the digital futures rhetoric and the 'underclass' narratives, to gain a more dialectical view of the Northern Powerhouse.

So, let's begin with some digital futures advocacy, made here at openDemocracy. Alex Connock, Managing Director of Shine North, and Chair of the North West Royal Television Society, begins with Manchester as a big media producer.  

Media City does employ thousands of people, but its location next to Salford has given rise to a series of fierce debates about whether or not BBC wealth – Media City hosts a Booths supermarket – touches the zone next to it at all. To be clear, Manchester Left Writers side with the 'not very much' view. We are 'trickle down' cynics, and there is good evidence to back our cynicism.

The 2011 riots in Salford are perhaps the most severe example. The riots, here, unlike many places in nearby central Manchester, were not 'mindless looting', 'shopping inverted', but aimed at the organs of a state that were seen to have failed local citizens. The Police, the housing centre. The research of Dr Bob Jefferey at Sheffield Hallam shows this clearly. Gangland killings and Victorian horse-drawn funerals with big floral lettering, happening in Salford, but reported nationally, draw parallels between MediaCityUK and London's One Canada Square and Docklands.

London's partly real, partly mythical 'East', Tower Hamlets, for instance, also still has to try to get the best deals out of the local gangsters, in Canary Wharf. With 'devo max', it is hard to see how Salford, already with some of the highest council tax bands in the area, will be any different. All of this is the Northern Powerhouse. It is dialectical. It is Media City, with its stewards whizzing around like droids, with wheels for feet, in a hyper-banal, unreal film set world, adjacent to gangster killings, acute poverty and vice. The other side of power is complicity or coercion. You can't have a Northern Powerhouse without ‘the northern powerless’, the terms wouldn't signify.

You can't have a Northern Powerhouse without ‘the northern powerless’

There is a geographical aspect to this, too. The Krays, as Chris Jenks and Justin Lorentzen pointed out, only became an active threat when they began to take up assets in West London. There is nothing to say that the more abject parts of Salford won't stay abject as long as they remain within their own spatial logic. The word 'ghetto' is unfashionable, but we can see how the homeless clearances under the Mancunian Way, and elsewhere, became threats to the spectacular centrism of the city. They are interventions, intentional or otherwise, into the spatial logic of power.

This spatial logic then plays out on the wider stage of the southeast and northwest. Connock talks of pulling capital ‘up’ to Manchester. One legitimate map of the island does show how money congeals in the southeast. Not the southeast of rural Kent and Essex, which harbours some often severe, concealed poverty, but the zone that the Northern Powerhouse only signifies in relation to, the real zone of power, the Square Mile. The place of finance in Britain, not of economics. Economics manages territories, finance, capital. The gravity-defying magic trick that Connock asks for explains this relationship too, the attempt to make hard cash impossibly float 'up north' from The City as a recalcitrant Whitehall, the central, economic territory manager, keeps cutting. After the 2016 budget, all of this has just become more acute. Bradford, for instance, now has to pull £1 million per day from its territories, some of which already look like war zones

However, we need to take care with this kind of table thumping regionalist discourse, which can be seen at many levels: Some of our respondents have commented, for instance, that Peel Holdings ‘can do what they like’, as long as ‘they pour money into the Northwest’, even tax avoidance. The north-south split acts as a handy divide and conquer in this sense. It keeps people focused on regional inequality, real though that is, and blind to the fact that capitalist power is global.

To pull out and look at the global perspective, you could do much worse than look to Deloitte, who are currently running a Stateside blog that provides a crucial viewpoint to add into this picture. They see the north as an investment rich land of opportunity, and George Osborne is currently courting Chinese investors for HS2 and other projects.

Alex Connock is ambivalent about the powers of local government to deal with anything except 'bus timetables'. He dismisses the expectation that they have even the most basic agency as 'like expecting Man United to play better on the pitch because you change who’s in charge of the car parks.' There is an unfortunate, undeniable truth to this. But here we find a set of crucial questions about the role of the state and the locally devolved bodies representing that state.

For Connock, the Northern Powerhouse is shiny new assemblages of high-tech business. We say that this is his side of the prism only. We spoke to the US urbanist Brian Rosa about this. He told us that if Osborne and Deloitte and all of the economic development agencies are behind it, then the motivations aren’t social equity. Rosa, like us, is not a priori against urban devolution, but notes that even if those processes are abstractly about regional equity, they are also about shifting public funds to stimulate economic growth and neoliberal urban restructuring, at a global scale.

Connock puts all his chips on to this single square of neoliberal urban restructuring, in the faith that the backers of Google, Facebook, eBay, Uber and Apple, and business models such as 'Amazon' are all that is needed, remaining uncritical about what those horizontal surplus-skimming assemblages exploit, in chains of commodities, labour, social and cultural power.

We say that none of this is settled, at the same time as we realise that in the absence of any real resistance, it is likely to remain a done deal. Rather than a Northern Powerhouse, we need Northern House Power, so that our 'houses', the council, the dwellings of citizens, become active players in their own future, rather than buying into a pre-constructed hallucination of industrial nostalgia.

This is a bigger question, about failing democratic processes at all levels. Connock's advocacy about the Northern Powerhouse asks only for TV and media innovation, or microbusiness infrastructure like the Sharp Project. To read him is to feel that there is literally no other game in town, other than digital startups in cheap office space. But this is where the industrial connotations of the Northern Powerhouse are so misleading.

Put very simply, the people under the bridges in tents are not going to be part of that rising world. But nor are a large amount of the young coming through our starved and attacked Further Education. Connock is definitely up for developing ‘human, social and intellectual capital’, which is great, but for him, investment in ideas and models is all that needs to happen. For a laissez-faire neoliberal, possibly. But without proper FE structures, the game is often pretty much rigged, in terms of the swimmers and sinkers, a view currently holding across the left and right: You know who is going to be in the digital startups, broadly.

I say a more equal country is required, not one with more ladders. Richer patterns of society for all, as E.P. Thompson explained in his collection 'Writing by Candlelight', not 'escapes' from slump zones for a few, zones created by capitalism in the first place. New values. New structures of feeling, hooked up to the ecology. Asking for this, even now, with Corbyn swept easily into power as leader of the opposition, still seems like asking for direct intervention from Mars. But I shall ask and be damned if necessary.

What will happen through this five to ten year social and economic experiment is not clear, but it is currently set to create a much wider divorce of capital, actual, social and cultural.

Connock wants 'our brilliant and newly-empowered council leaders' to hold a conference at Manchester Town Hall for investors who are ‘reshaping the way humanity functions.' The state, here, is an ancient crumbling structure, only good for free meeting space and coffee in order to discuss the next round of surplus-accumulation. We say on questions of species being – and this is one if it involves the way humanity functions – we need to take an interest and have a much bigger say.

This is not a call for ethnocentric regionalism, but a globalism of citizens: Polity rebooted. We need Northern House Power, not more ladders, or snakes.

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