Reflections on nine years of putting the north on the political map

After nearly nine years as director of IPPR North, Ed Cox is leaving the organisation. Cox spoke to Infrastructure Intelligence about his time at the helm, which saw the government introduce the Northern Powerhouse and devolve some decision-making powers to a newly-created Transport for the North.





How would you describe the commitment to infrastructure spending in the north and how far forward do you believe it has changed since you became director almost nine years ago?

It’s fair to say that nine years ago there was very little spending on infrastructure in the north. The coalition government came in under the banner of austerity and immediately brought an axe to the capital spending budget and that had an impact of infrastructure spending across the board. In regard to spending in the north of England, the disparities in infrastructure spending in 2010 are very similar to today and we have not seen much change at all in overall terms. But what has changed particularly, especially in the last four years, is the narrative and understanding of the importance of infrastructure spending in the north. The current government has started to turn on the taps a little bit but by no means are we where we need to be as a nation in terms of the levels of infrastructure spending that will sustain a developed economy.

Transport for the North is another encouraging step to hopefully bring about change but do you worry that government funding may not match northern ambitions?

Transport for the North (TfN) has done a fantastic job very quickly in getting the north up to speed so that the in the next 12 to 18 months we should have a series of significant appraised transport projects which the government and others can invest in. The jury is still out on whether the government commitment to northern infrastructure is for real. In developing strategic plans, TfN has removed one of the major obstacles to investment. Through excellent leadership we now see the north speak with one voice on infrastructure needs and that puts the onus on the government to respond to their demands. 

But in such a centralised nation, we are going to need the government at some level to grant more freedoms and flexibilities to the north if we are going to be to able to take the future into our own hands. To that extent, we have a problem that TfN has not been granted the same type of powers as Transport for London, so can’t borrow to invest and can’t raise funds through the private sector in the same way, so to that extent the north is still shackled and that’s where government needs to let us free.

"I think the commitment by central government to the Northern Powerhouse has certainly diminished over the last two years but the amount of drive and momentum from the bottom-up is significant and in some respects we no longer need that top-down approach." 
Ed Cox, IPPR North director

Is the Northern Powerhouse the biggest change in your time in terms of the shift to looking more to the north and how would you reflect of its progress and its effectiveness?

I have always felt the Northern Powerhouse is actually the sum total of our £300bn economy, 15 million people and one million businesses, not a government program. The success of it lies in the hands of its businesses, its people and the way in which we choose to shape our economy in the years ahead.

I think the commitment by central government to the Northern Powerhouse has diminished over the last two years but the amount of drive and momentum from the bottom-up is significant and in some respects we no longer need that top-down approach. If the Northern Powerhouse brand has galvanised the process, then George Osborne's initiative has been a positive one but as I've already said, the drive behind it in the last two years has fallen.

What change is still needed in your opinion to ensure areas in the north get the same fair shake as London and the south-east in general? 

There are three things I’d like to see.

First of all, we need to see the north speaking with one voice on its economy, not just transport but several aspects of the economy and for that reason we need a Council of the North which can exercise proper leadership, specifically in terms of Brexit and various significant decisions that are going to be taken about items like the shared prosperity fund and trade arrangements.

Secondly, there needs to be very significant fiscal devolution. It can’t be the case that we remain alongside countries like Romania and Bulgaria in the way in which the central state allocates funding. It’s vital that the north is able to raise and spend its own tax revenues in the same way it has benefitted the home nations.

Thirdly, any new fiscal settlement like that will need greater democratic accountability. We have long argued for a Northern Citizens Assembly that will hold a Council for the North to account and bring the north of the England into the vanguard of modern 21st century democracies. 

What was behind your decision to leave IPPR North and did frustrations with Westminster to properly commit to northern devolution play any role?

The North of England is full of people with fantastic ideas and initiatives that would be really beneficial to the economic opportunities that exist and my sense is that after nearly nine years in the job, it is a good and healthy thing for the north’s leading think tank to have fresh leadership and new ideas. From a personal point of view, I am very proud of the achievements over the past nine years and the way we have led the debate on the type of northern economy that we want to create. However, there has been times in the past 12 months when I feel the Northern Powerhouse debate has become too preoccupied with rather narrow drivers of economic growth such as transport or skills when in fact what we need is a much broader vision of the way in which society and the economy can be regenerated. 

What are some of your proudest moments in terms of work that IPPR North has undertaken?

The Northern Economic Futures Commission that we facilitated and reported in 2012 still represents the most comprehensive and coherent regional industrial strategy that exists for the region and it has driven the Northern Powerhouse agenda in a way that I never imagined it might when we first set out to do it. I think that the blueprint for TfN was two years ahead of its time and I am delighted by the way in which it has genuinely provided for something which is such an important part of the Northern Powerhouse agenda. Most recently, I am incredibly excited by the Northern Energy Strategy we published last year because I think that represents a genuinely collaborative approach to maximising one of the most important assets for the future of the northern economy and environment.

You have announced that your new role will be with the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), so what does the future entail for yourself? 

Everyone familiar with RSA will know its wide-ranging and provocative ideas and I am looking forward to engaging with them and the new challenges ahead. But I am still passionate about the north of England and I am hoping to work with the RSA to ensure its creativity and thinking can be applied across the north in order to drive that more radical change that I believe is so desperately needed. The RSA offers a wonderful opportunity for me to explore some of these more profound challenges in a new and dynamic context. 

If you would like to contact Ryan Tute about this, or any other story, please email