Business and civic leaders in the North have called for metro mayors to be given more powers over transport infrastructure, education and skills to drive the ‘levelling-up’ agenda.
Devolution to combined authority mayors in the North is one of the recommendations in a new report from the cross-party think tank Northern Powerhouse Partnership.
The report, entitled Life in a Northern Town: why levelling up must be delivered up North, looked in detail at the economies of Bury in Greater Manchester, Goole on the Humber and Blyth in the North East.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s research found that the economic growth of major cities such as Manchester benefited smaller towns in the same region by connecting people to more job opportunities while helping businesses to tap into a wider talent pool.
‘The debate on levelling up has followed a period where some commentators discuss the prospects of towns as if they have failed because of the success of cities, as if Manchester City Centre has led to decline in its nearby towns,’ reads the report’s conclusion.
‘The reality is that the challenges of some towns of the North, particularly in many post-industrial areas, would have been much more acute without the regeneration of Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. The vitality of places like Stockport, Guiseley and Gateshead is due to their shared success with their near neighbours, connected by a train or a bridge over a river.’
In order to further develop the links between major cities and their neighbouring towns, the report argues that metro mayors should be granted more powers to improve transport connectivity.
The importance of transport was evidenced by the experience of Bury and Rochdale, two towns closely linked to Manchester.
The average weekly wage of somebody working full time in Bury was £532 in 2020, above the £491 earned by workers in nearby Rochdale but significantly below the £600 per week earned by those working in Manchester.
However, the picture changes when looking at those who live rather than work in these places. Full time workers that live in Bury earn an average of £591 per week compared with £509 for residents of Rochdale and £538 for residents of central Manchester, indicating that many of Bury’s residents are commuting out of the town, in many cases into central Manchester, to the higher productivity and higher paid jobs.
As well as transport improvements, the report emphasises the importance of improving education and skills levels for unlocking opportunities for local people both in their hometown and in the wider city region. This will be particularly important if the region is to take advantage of the ‘green energy revolution’.
‘Levelling Up means just as much of a focus on our left behind towns as it does our city centres. It will only be through harnessing their combined strengths that we can reduce regional inequalities,’ said Jessica Bowles, head of strategy at Bruntwood.
‘There is an almost limitless potential in our towns waiting to be unlocked through the power of this agglomeration. It will mean pooling towns' existing strengths with each other, building on them, and then better linking them with neighbouring cities.
‘The communities within our towns have a bigger role to play in their futures too. Peoples’ pride and desire to see their towns thrive is a powerful tool that can be leveraged by strong local leadership.
‘This report provides a vitally needed blueprint towards realising this vision. This is an important piece of work in the wider context of Levelling Up, and it shows that the North knows what’s needed to solve its challenges. We now just need Whitehall to listen.’