Manchester grew prosperous on the cotton industry. At its peak there were 108 cotton mills in the city, and fortunes to be made in designing, spinning, weaving, garment making, selling and financing. Sheffield has long been famous for its cutlery. It pioneered new steel making techniques and sells Sheffield plate to the world. Leeds grew as a large woollen textile centre with a range of services for the Yorkshire industry. Liverpool grew rich and famous on its shipping and transatlantic trades.
The twentieth century was not so kind to many of these industries. Under governments of all persuasions we watched as the wool and cotton industries were challenged by new rivals abroad. The transatlantic liners were largely replaced by airplanes from Heathrow and much of the goods trade shifted to east coast ports. The steel industry also faced new cheaper competitors.
Most of the political debate about a Northern powerhouse is about what government can do for a city, and about who should govern a city. These are important issues. I don’t doubt that good transport links, strong universities, high levels of education and training for local young people, and good housing can help a great city grow and flourish. It may be that local politicians can do a better job than Whitehall at spending the large sums of public money that are on offer, but they will need to prove that by their actions.
There remains the larger question of how are these important cities going to develop and rebuild their private sectors? There are signs of progress, with Manchester’s airport related commercial expansion and with the Leeds financial services developments. To catch up with London all these cities are going to need much larger private sectors, with more modern business activities adding jobs and making profits.
Better rail and road links are needed to export more goods and services to the south, more than to encourage more long distance commuting into the capital. These cities need more higher -priced housing for sale as well as affordable housing to rent, to attract the investors and entrepreneurs. Whilst it is largely up to the private sector to make its own judgements about what it can make and do, the cities that succeed have to show a positive wish to recruit and nurture new business and sometimes need to kickstart sectors or themes for business clusters.
London has recently attracted more hi tec business to the Old Street area by theming Silicon roundabout. Cambridge has been successful at attracting medical and science based businesses to its campus style business parks. The Reading area in recent decades has been successful at attracting a cluster of computer based businesses to the Thames Valley. The Northern Powerhouse can also power ahead by such initiatives. Modern cities cluster excellence and enterprise, just as Manchester has been the foremost technical and financial centre in the world for cotton textiles, and Sheffield was the dominant world leader for steel innovation.