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Northern Powerhouse: New Metro Mayors Must Ensure Prosperity Reaches All Towns and Cities

01/03/2016 12:41 GMT | Updated 01/03/2017 10:12 GMT

The Northern Powerhouse continues to strike a chord. Britain has the potential to become a more prosperous country, with George Osborne's focus on the north potentially playing a key role in rebalancing the economy. With a new wave of metro mayors set to be elected next year, installed to drive the economies of the north's great city regions, there is a genuine opportunity to foster a new kind of economy, where all people and places benefit from growth.

But a more coherent and strategic approach is required if we are serious about achieving this rebalancing. JRF's new report highlights that the scale of the challenge could hardly be any greater, with 10 of the top 12 struggling economies being located in the north of England.

Analysing the fortunes of 74 towns and cities with populations over 100,000, our index assesses how such places are faring on employment rates, skills levels, job quality, migration and population change. The north-south divide couldn't be any starker, with no southern city ranked in the top third of the index. Although cities in the north are growing, they are getting left behind as their growth rates significantly lag behind national levels.

This uneven growth between places is not just a national issue, it is also a critical issue within city regions. Greater Manchester, the poster boy for the Northern Powerhouse is a case in point. The city is going places. The cranes on the skyline, trams ferrying residents to and from work, a cultural offer of global appeal. Manchester's city centre has the buzz of a big, vibrant European city. Mancunians would have you believe that Manchester is the Northern Powerhouse.

But away from its urban core and leafy southern suburbs the story of Manchester's northern boroughs is quite different. Three of the top 12 struggling cities in our index - Rochdale, Bolton and Wigan - are within the Greater Manchester conurbation. Whilst neighbouring authorities such as Oldham and Tameside may take some comfort at not being at the top of the index, it would be churlish not to recognise that deep and extensive social and economic challenges exist across the north of the city region.

These challenges don't stop here. There are places such as Burnley and Blackburn (both in the top 12 of the index) on the periphery of Greater Manchester but lie outside the city region political construct. What will a stronger more powerful Greater Manchester mean for East Lancashire? A Northern Powerhouse cannot be built around one or two core business and service centres which overshadow their neighbours. We need a more inclusive growth strategy that seeks to ensure no person or place slips through the cracks or gets left even further behind.

New metro mayors and council leaders must harness their increased economic powers to create an economy in which there are far greater opportunities for the people and places who have previously been left behind. Of course there are no silver bullets for creating jobs and connecting people and places to jobs. Extending a tram line might be part of the solution but will not be sufficient in its self. Investing in education and skills must be a priority, but again won't solve the problem if there are no jobs to access or those that are available are low quality and don't fully utilise employee's skills.

A shift in emphasis is now needed within city leaderships of who (and where) is or isn't benefiting from growth. These issues will come to the fore with the election of metro mayors who will represent the diverse mix of people and places within individual city regions. These mayors will be faced with incredibly difficult choices around how and where to prioritise investment and will play a critical role in leading an inclusive growth agenda.

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