Who will benefit from the Northern Powerhouse?

Rebecca Atkinson, 26.05.2015
A visit to Home, Manchester’s new arts centre
As much as I hate to admit it, George Osborne has got into my head. Ever since he first mooted the phrase “Northern Powerhouse” last June in an address at the Museum of Science and Industry (Mosi) in Manchester, it has become my favourite piece of political jargon.

For those not familiar with the idea, the Northern Powerhouse is about making the north of England an economic force to rival London and the south east through devolution of powers and investment in core cities – Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Investment in culture and heritage seem to be an important part of the concept. Manchester is already benefiting, with £3m announced for new exhibition space at Mosi, and in March the Segedunum Roman Fort in Wallsend, North Tyneside, received a £500,000 grant from the government as part of a long-term economic plan for the region.

Could the Northern Powerhouse be the answer to the imbalance of arts funding  between London and the rest of England (not to mention the more general north-south economic divide)?

This is one of the questions we’ll be considering at a session at the Museums Association conference in Birmingham on 5-6 November. Much like last year’s After the Scottish Referendum group discussion, the session Northern Powerhouse – a good deal for museums? will be an open forum for delegates to share their views and discuss how museums might benefit.

Maria Balshaw, the director of the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester City Art Gallery, Christopher Gordon, the co-author of Rebalancing our Capital Culture, Michael Turnpenny, the museums development officer for Yorkshire, and Iain Watson, the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, will all be in attendance to offer their thoughts on the subject.

Of course, the fact that this discussion is taking place in Birmingham begs the question: when are we going to hear about a Midlands Powerhouse? I hope that delegates from across England attend to offer their thoughts, as well as those from Scotland and Wales who have already seen the impact of cultural devolution.

One issue that I am keen to see highlighted is exactly which areas will benefit from the Northern Powerhouse. It’s noticeable that the strapline on a government report on the northern transport strategy is “One Agenda, One Economy, One North” – a sentiment that overlooks the fear that the devolution of power and investment for key northern cities will help drive the decline of others.

And what do we want our northern cities to look like? Should they aspire to be like London, and if not then what is the alternative?

Last Friday I went to Manchester for the opening of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the inaugural exhibition at the city’s new £25m arts centre Home. The new space, situated opposite the site of the old Hacienda nightclub, comprises two theatres, five cinemas and the art gallery, as well as bars and a shop.

It is hip and welcoming, an ideal space for Manchester’s huge student population and young professionals to hang out and discuss art over a craft beer or two.

“I can’t believe this is in Manchester,” my friend said during our visit, but I could. The city is still buzzing from the reopening of the Whitworth Art Gallery, and there are plans to open a new £78m theatre called The Factory by 2019.

From Manchester, I got the train to Bradford. Once one of the richest cities in the country, it couldn’t be any more different to nearby Leeds or Manchester, although it is undergoing a mini-renaissance of its own.

So far I’ve yet to find out how the city might benefit from the Northern Powerhouse – or whether, if it does get left behind, how much harder making the case for investment will be?

Northern Powerhouse – a good deal for museums? takes place on Thursday 5 November at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham.


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27.05.2015, 22:59
Well, to a historian, that is like adding N/W England to Bernicia and Deira, to form a new Northumbria. Don't forget that it extended to Edinburgh, so that may deflate or raise anew the Independence question??