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The Convention of the North with NP11 took place in Liverpool on 8 February, marking the second time that Social has supported this major event, bringing together the North’s business, political and community leaders to shape a common agenda for northern prosperity.

More than two years had passed since the last Convention of the North in Rotherham, which was attended by over 1,000 people and at which Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, set out his vision for levelling up the North.

Much has happened in that time – not least the impact of COVID-19, which has affected the North more than most places. Northerners were 20% more likely to catch COVID and 12% more likely to die from it than the UK population as a whole. The pandemic has shone a brutal light on the gulf in healthy life expectancy between North and South and the role that deprivation has played in this.

With these stark statistics in mind, the stakes for the 2022 Convention of the North could not have been higher. Alongside the northern leaders joining forces to consider how to help the North’s economy, communities and its people recover from the impact of COVID-19, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, also took part in the event, which came just a week after his Levelling Up White Paper was published.

Here are six key takeaways from the event:

  1. Collaboration not competition is how the North will prosper – if there was one defining message from northern leaders, it was that the North is strongest when it speaks with one voice. Collaboration is how the North will recover successfully from COVID-19 and level up its economy. Although the North is not one place but many, its cities, towns and rural areas face common challenges and the Government’s current approach of pitting different areas against one another to compete for scarce is unhelpful. Newcastle City Council Leader and Convention of the North Chair, Councillor Nick Forbes, won the award for best analogy of the day, urging his fellow northern leaders not to behave like “Hungry Hippos”, trying to gobble up the most balls. Instead, he pointed to the work of Transport for the North, which has galvanised all parts of the North behind a shared vision for better transport, which will help all places prosper.
  2. The end of trickle-down economics? – many in the room, and those watching via the live stream, will have been surprised to hear Michael Gove – a senior Conservative towards the right of the party – decry trickle-down economics the limitations of the free market, calling inequality “indefensible”. There is surely no clearer sign than this that British Conservative politics is entering a new chapter. Referring to the White Paper he launched the week before, Mr Gove said that levelling up is a “moral, social and economic issue” and, responding to a question from the Liverpool Echo’s Liam Thorpe, he acknowledged that many northerners will be at the very least skeptical that Government will deliver on its levelling up promises after a decade of austerity. Which brings us to the next key takeaway…
  3. Warm words must be matched with cold cash – there was universal welcoming of the Government’s levelling up commitment among the North’s Labour metro mayors (its only Conservative Mayor, the Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen was not in attendance, so we can only speculate on his reaction to Mr Gove’s free market criticisms after he urged the Government to “unleash the free market” in response to the Levelling Up White Paper). However, there were also pleas from public and private sectors to match this commitment with serious investment. In the words of the host mayor, Liverpool City Region’s Steve Rotheram, “Not even London could deliver London-style transport networks with Northern-style funding settlements.” Although Cllr Nick Forbes did urge delegates not to present Michael Gove with a shopping list and instead consider what the North can achieve through greater collaboration, the consensus was that for levelling up to be realised, it would require a ”full fat Coke budget, not a Coke Zero one” to quote NP11 Chair Sir Roger Marsh.
  4. The battle over the Integrated Rail Plan isn’t over – transport is hailed by many as the cornerstone of levelling up and, with several delegates arriving late as a result of cancelled trains between Leeds and Liverpool, it was certainly a hot topic of conversation. Northern metro mayors and the NP11 held a press conference over lunch, asking the Government to return to the negotiating table on the Integrated Rail Plan, citing the news that a levelling up analysis of the Plan’s impact on northern communities had not been undertaken. West Yorkshire Mayor, Tracy Brabin, referred to the controversial axing of Northern Powerhouse Rail, and with it a new city centre station for Bradford, saying that “the poster child for levelling up is being left behind”. With Boris Johnson seeming to leave the door open for HS2 to Leeds – or is that Bradford? – at PMQs the day after the Convention, northern leaders will no doubt continue to make a strong case for the original plan put forward by Transport for the North to be delivered in full.
  5. Involve young people in decision-making – one of the earliest speakers on the day was a young student from Liverpool John Moores University, Aby Ndiaye, who issued an impassioned plea to leaders to involve young people in conversations and decision-making about the North’s future. During her speech, she said: “Please think of young people like us when you make decisions. Please include us in your conversations about the North. We want to help create a world of opportunity.” Speaking afterwards she added: “We need to be having more dialogue with young people, especially in the North. There is still an ingrained mentality across the region that as soon you’ve finished with your education – be it university or any other pathway – that to get the best opportunities you need to move down south and start a new life.“ But the question is why should you not start that life right here in the North? I’m certain that young people can also achieve their goals here, but our generation needs to be heard and given a chance.” One area where young people’s voices need to be heard most loudly is on the climate emergency, with many delegates criticising the limited reference to net zero in the Levelling Up White Paper, and the North’s ability to lead the UK’s transition.
  6. The future of the North must be driven by the North – a shared ambition for the North to succeed was palpable among everyone who took part in this year’s Convention, and politicians and business leaders called on the Government to make good on its promises in the Levelling Up White Paper to devolve real funding and investment to the North. Liverpool City Region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, said: “Some people describing our region have preconceptions that we live in a Hovis-type advert. But we’ve got the blueprint for the brighter, fairer and more successful country that we need.” Meanwhile Cllr Nick Forbes called on the North to “dare to dream” and NP11 Chair, Sir Roger Marsh spoke about the important role the North has to play in developing a Global Britain post-Brexit, stating memorably that “we’re not a golden triangle, we’re a platinum polygon.” Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham closed the day by saying “this is the loudest the North has ever spoken. We will ask politely, but we won’t stop making our case”.

As a business with firm roots in the North, which is committed to playing our part in its future success, we are honoured to have supported this important event for a second time and we look forward to helping leaders make that case.