The Barrow question: is the Northern Powerhouse for towns too?

Northern towns: Map showing Barrow-in-Furness

Before he coined the phrase Northern Powerhouse, Jim O’Neill had come up with ManPool. He later upgraded it to ManShefLeedsPool.”You’ve got eight million people. And if you can create essentially a single market, you’ve got a game-changer, because you’ve got something, along with London, that registers on the global stage,” he said.

Lord O’Neill was not the first person to come up with the idea of merging the northern cities to create an entity large enough to take on the world. Back in 2008 a merger of Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester was proposed. “Manshefleeds your time is now” said the Financial Times, optimistically. Before that in 2004, John Prescott’s vision of an 80-mile conurbation stretching from Hull to Liverpool was dubbed “Prezzagrad”.  As far back as the 1960s, The Economist proposed a new northern capital – Elizabetha – be built between York and Leeds.

All these proposals have something in common. They are all about cities.

What about towns like Barrow?

What about towns like Barrow? What about all those smaller towns dotted across the North that don’t necessarily benefit from strategic rail investment or City Region status.

Barrow-in-Furness lies in the south-west corner of Cumbria, across Morcambe Bay. A relatively poor town, it’s a two hour drive from both Liverpool and Manchester. It’s a lot quicker and easier to get to London from Manchester  than to Barrow by public transport.

So what is the Northern Powerhouse vision for Barrow – and for the many similar towns across the north?

Warm words

When the question is asked, there are lots of warm words. No-one is going to say that those places should be ignored. But what is the solution? Is the Northern Powerhouse vision to develop new industries in towns like Barrow? Is the plan to upgrade transport infrastructure not just between and within the big cities, but to the far-flung towns as well? Or, in reality, will places like Barrow forever be the next project, never quite making it to the top of the funding pile?

The Centre for Towns, launched last November, aims to promote their cause and they are not alone. There are grave concerns about an exodus of skilled workers from these towns.

And what about new housing? The Government, it promises, will be breathing down the necks of councils that fail to deliver the new homes each area needs. With no shortage of land around them, towns up and down the country are being identified for building. But that’s of limited use if the jobs aren’t in the town and the links to get people quickly and easily to other jobs don’t exist.

To date, the Northern Powerhouse has been a tale of cities. Towns like Barrow want to know when they will become part of the story.

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