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The aim of the Northern Powerhouse is to increase productivity across the north to be on a par with that of London and the south east of England. The focus is on the devolution of powers to city regions with the aim of igniting city led economic growth and improved physical connectivity between the core cities.

This report was commissioned by the northern regions of the RSA Fellowship to investigate the impact of the Northern Powerhouse on its surrounding rural regions. Through discussion and research we have developed an understanding of the threats to and opportunities for rural areas and have developed recommendations and follow on actions.

The current Northern Powerhouse proposals rely on the traditional industrial model of command and control where presence ‘at work’ is expected. They overlook the value and role of areas outside of the core cities and the dramatic changes in the way we live and work.

There are widespread concerns amongst northern businesses and rural communities that the Northern Powerhouse, instead of uniting the north, will prove divisive, widening the inequality gap by promoting city led growth at the expense of areas outside of the core cities.

National organisations have argued for decades that the value and role of rural communities are ignored by centralised schemes that are too generalised and fail to create impact at a local level. They argue that rural towns need to develop their own bespoke solutions, but towns face a multitude of challenges preventing them from creating change. The main barriers are centralisation of power, lack of trust, resources, infighting and an absence of collaboration, which result in further division and stagnation. As a result, most locally developed activity focuses on peripheral issues or ‘pet projects’, rather than focusing on addressing key threats and building productive, prosperous and sustainable futures.

Centralised strategies miss the specific nuances that make towns special and unique. A town’s essence, the things that attract people to live, visit and work there can be described as Community Capital. Community Capital is the unique blend of human, social, built and natural resources associated with that particular locality. Weaknesses in one or more of the four areas leads to decline and, if left unchecked impacts on future sustainability.

A town can contribute to increased productivity by developing solutions that make the most efficient use of its Community Capital. These solutions will help provide sustainable futures for our rural communities, but they will also support and complement the Northern Powerhouse.

In many communities, commuting is a key threat that is not currently being addressed. Commuting is inefficient but face-to-face interaction is vital for innovation so we need to find new ways of working. New style hubs in outlying areas that provide a balance between flexibility and human interaction have been shown to significantly improve productivity and reduce environmental impact. For some towns, the provision of a Smart Hub could both increase the region’s productivity and the town’s Community Capital. In other towns focus on and development of local employment is more appropriate.

Communities will need to develop new skills to enable them to identify core threats that impact on their sustainability and develop local solutions based upon their Community Capital. To support and focus communities we recommend that Central Government:

  • requires local plans to consider the impact of the Northern Powerhouse on northern communities
  • considers the recommendations of The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) to implement some form of rural devolution

The RSA North Fellowship Councillors will support the development of local solutions with the following activity:

  • Skills shortage and misalignment are linked to weak productivity. Local solutions are required that will provide clearer and more accessible pathways to more varied and relevant careers. Towns can play a role in developing relationships between businesses and education/training providers. In one of our next projects we will focus on skills alignment in rural communities. It will be focused on Frodsham and will develop and test ways in which local employers including enterprise sites such as Sci-Tech Daresbury, Thornton Science Park and Ince Recovery Centre can develop links with local education providers and influence local skills development.
  • A second follow-up project will focus on hub working and business models that promote flexibility and optimise productivity. We will also consider what factors should be considered when deciding how to engage with City Regions. Our conclusions will inform the type of activity the Fellowship should support with time and financial resources. We will support local initiatives such as the exploration of Community Capital in Kendal and the viability of a Cultural Hub in Berwick upon Tweed.
  • The Incredible Edible team has launched a project under the banner of Incredible North to explore a new type of prosperity, one that embraces health, wealth and happiness. They want to identify people with the will to change, people who want to find a better way and to help them. They want to enable individuals and whole communities to make best use of their resources (human, social, built and natural), combining them with new technology and exploring new ways of doing things that will help communities build sustainable futures. This fits with the RSA’s existing work on Community Capital and the Northern Powerhouse focus on increasing productivity.


 The Northern Powerhouse - where do market towns fit in? (PDF, 1MB)


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