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  • The Feebleness of the Northern Powerhouse
  • Owen Hatherley (bio)

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In 1996, a bomb planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army devastated the Manchester city center. Nobody was killed, but the city council used the opportunity to remodel a rather forbidding, monolithic area of office blocks and shopping malls into something new, cultured, and continental. This development was the centerpiece of a project to turn the rainy post-industrial city into the “Barcelona of the North.” At the heart of this area stood a grand, all-glass museum, opened in June 2002. Named Urbis, the building files to a flatiron-like curve, cutting a striking modernist profile in a city that had once defined modernity. At the start of the 19th century, Manchester appeared almost out of nowhere to become the world’s first real industrial metropolis. Where better to have a museum devoted entirely to the idea of “the city”? [End Page 14]

One of Urbis’s first exhibits was Super-City, by the London-based architect Will Alsop. Along the M62, the motorway that runs roughly between the port cities of Liverpool and Hull, Alsop imagined a continuous strip of activities—new housing, new leisure, new infrastructure—that would create a northern rival to London. Perhaps because the focus was on Alsop’s own designs—a kind of pop whimsy of Day-Glo colors, childlike effects, and wonky pillars—and given the fact that people in strongly defined cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Hull were unlikely to ever consider themselves part of the same metropolis, the SuperCity was not taken particularly seriously. Yet, while it is unlikely that George Osborne was in the habit of visiting Urbis, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer ushered in what’s essentially the same idea with a 2014 plan he called the Northern Powerhouse.

Alsop did get to build a little of his SuperCity in the form of a series of town plans in Ancoats, an early inner-city industrial district of Manchester; in Bradford, an impressive but desperately poor 19th century industrial center; and in the much smaller former mining town of Barnsley. These areas conspicuously failed to, in the urban theory parlance, “regenerate.” Bradford, in particular, gained little more from Alsop’s plans than some new fountains and an enormous empty space, which was supposed to be filled with a shopping mall.

But then the more interesting part of the plan was always the infrastructure, which would enable people to, as Alsop promised, spend a day working in Leeds, have dinner in Manchester, and take in a concert in Liverpool before going home to Bradford. This is entirely normal in the capital: Greater London is a series of towns, villages, and once-independent cities (like Southwark or Westminster) that grew together into a metropolis that is now administered by a mayor. London has had for over 80 years both an integrated transport network and a clear identity. Individuals from places as distant as Watford and Croydon still consider themselves Londoners.

With the partial exception of Greater Manchester, no area of the north has such a coherent government, and each city fiercely guards its own identity. This isn’t surprising: The distances involved are mostly far larger and the cultural differences far greater than within Greater London. Yet the Northern Powerhouse is predicated on treating the north as a potential single entity that is currently fragmented, a sort of Greater London in waiting. Much as London’s public transport needs are catered for by the publicly owned Transport for London (TfL), so the north’s will be organized by a newly created Transport for the North (TfN), which will pool the resources of various operators of Britain’s privatized railway companies.

Although London has always been dominant, the U.K. in the 19th and early 20th centuries had some more balance given the strength of its industrial north, which encompassed highly skilled industries such as steel in Sheffield and shipbuilding in Newcastle, along with textiles in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, and coal mining throughout the north (and with other major centers around Birmingham, South Wales, and Glasgow). Deindustrialization since the 1970s...


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pp. 14-18
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