Family looking at aircraft inside the Air & Space Hall at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, England. Credit ©VisitBritain / Pawel Libera

Northern Powerhouse: a golden opportunity or a cultural albatross?

Gareth Harris, 05.11.2015
Sector professionals focus on the complex issues behind George Osborne’s grand plan
The danger of in-fighting, the importance of the proposed HS3 rail link across the North of England and the identity of northern cities were among the pertinent issues discussed at the conference session Northern Powerhouse on 5 November.

Since George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, mooted the Northern Powerhouse agenda in a speech delivered at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester last year, sector professionals have questioned the implications for cultural institutions at the heart of Northern cities.

Nick Merriman, the director of Manchester Museum, said that the “key thing to grasp is that this is an economic concept [which addresses] the appalling disparity between the North and the South”, drawing parallels with aggregations of cities in Europe such as the Ruhr-Rhine metropolitan region in Germany.

Crucially, he argued that the planned HS3 link connecting Manchester and Leeds could prove more beneficial than the proposed HS2 north-south rail line. Intra-city transport links must also improve so that marginalised communities can access cultural facilities in the centre of Manchester, he said.

But the thrust of his presentation centred on the “need to demand significant levels of investment across the board”, warning that any new investment should not lead to in-fighting amongst regions and institutions.

Another speaker, Michael Turnpenny, the museums development officer for Yorkshire, also warned against complacency and the need especially to be “mindful of personality-driven projects”. He believes though that the Northern Powerhouse is an exciting opportunity to discover “the narrative of our identity in the North”. Collaboration, or joined-up thinking, is key, he said, a point echoed by Iain Watson, the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

He pondered on the crucial aspect underpinning the Northern Powerhouse, saying: “The big issue here is devolution: what will it mean for us?” Christopher Gordon, co-author of the 2013 report Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, stressed that “if this is going to work, it has to be decentralisation with real powers”, fearing that the government’s northern regeneration initiative is simply a branding exercise.

Attendees at the debate were left with Watson’s final declaration ringing in their ears: “Ask not what the Northern Powerhouse can do for culture, but what culture can do for the Northern Powerhouse?”