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Northern Powerhouse risks becoming political football

A cynic might suggest George Osborne launched his bid to be the next leader of the Conservative Party last week.

The former chancellor boldly declared “the Northern Powerhouse is here to stay”, as he revealed details of a new group that will lobby government for greater investment through devolution in the North.

Having heard some lukewarm noises over the Northern Powerhouse concept from Theresa May’s government in recent weeks, this was a defiant roar from Mr Osborne, who is credited with coining the ‘powerhouse’ moniker.

Still on the agenda

We were told that this is a “government-backed” partnership, with Atkins, Manchester Airport and Peel Group among the first organisations to be named as official partners.

Mr Osborne’s intervention made things very awkward for Mrs May, who subsequently referred to the Northern Powerhouse five times by name in a column for the Manchester Evening News, just four days after the launch of the partnership.

The prime minister reminded readers that she retained the minister for the Northern Powerhouse role, with Andrew Percy replacing James Wharton in the reshuffle.

Mr Percy will be working with others including Lord O’Neill, a close confidante of Mr Osborne’s who brought him in to the Treasury as commercial secretary.

“Businesses seeking reassurances over their investments in the Northern Powerhouse can rest a little easier”

Mrs May failed to mention the partnership, but went on to say that “together, we will ensure the whole machinery of government gets behind” the Northern Powerhouse.

So businesses seeking reassurances over their investments in infrastructure in the Northern Powerhouse can rest a little easier.

Well supported

Support for the agenda is showing no signs of abating.

Directly elected mayors will next year jostle for both domestic and foreign investment for their regions and contractors are already setting up back-office functions in the North to benefit from investment.

Persuading local authorities to set aside individual priorities for the greater good has been a success story overseen by Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese in Greater Manchester.

Sir Howard’s decision to retire next year was described to CN this week as a scenario the industry had “put to the back of our minds for as long as possible”.

The Northern Powerhouse has a lot to learn from Sir Howard’s vision and if it is to succeed it will be down to a collaborative approach between the major cities. This will be no mean feat.

It would be a shame if the Northern Powerhouse concept became political football – a point-scoring battle between a scorned former chancellor and a PM looking to rebuild a party divided by Brexit – rather than a way of rebalancing the economy.

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