IPPR North’s State of the North conference took place on 22nd January in Newcastle. The event saw decision makers and opinion leaders from across the North of England come together to discuss how we can tackle the country’s socio-economic problems and what the future looks like for our regions.

The event saw a number of lively discussions, focusing on issues and opportunities identified by IPPR North’s annual report of the same name. I was delighted to be asked to take part in a panel discussion on The Future of the North and the speakers throughout the day were thought-provoking, inspiring – and at times challenging. We face a great deal of uncertainty as a region at the moment, but with that comes the opportunity to ask ourselves what it is we want for our future. There were three themes that the speakers kept coming back to, that I’d like to share with you here.

Reframing the narrative of ‘the North’

Historically there has been a lot of talk about the North-South divide and how the north must ‘level up’ with regions in the south. The unspoken implication is that we, ‘the north’, should become more like our more successful cousins in the south. And yet when we look at London and the south of England, there is still a great deal of inequality. There are still people who experience homelessness, there are still women who are exploited, modern day slavery still occurs.

The UK is a divided country (indeed IPPR North’s report suggests we are the most divided country in the developed world when it comes to productivity, income and health), yet the north does not need to be ‘rescued’ by central government. Instead, we should look at the strengths and assets available to us in our regions.  We have unique skills and specialisms, a rich heritage and history of innovation and the support we need should empower us to build on this. Yes there are challenges facing the north of England, but we – and central government – need to recognise that these are specific to each region and ensure that there are tailored plans in place to address them, building on what is already being done well.

We also need to recognise that the language we use has the power to shape people’s perceptions of the places we live and work. If we choose to use language that compares us unfavourably to the south, how can we expect people to feel excited about their futures here? Or to see that they have opportunities to thrive?  At Changing Lives we’ve recently been working with Transform Justice to understand the impact of language. Perhaps it is time to reframe the narrative of the North.

The drive for Devolution

Parts of the North of England have already embraced devolution and are already feeling the benefits of increased control over spending decisions. In the North East it feels like we’re still at the beginning of our devolution journey and there is still a long way to go.

There are also limitations to what devolution can bring the North of England, in its current form. In his keynote speech, North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll discussed the challenges that come with the existing funding structure. For example, the Transporting Cities tender was a competitive 2-year process that saw regions bidding against one another – this makes a ‘united North’ an unlikely future. Delays to funding also means delays to the impact transformational projects could have.

Throughout the day there were calls for devolution to continue, and for an expanded remit. I believe devolution will only ever be able to go so far if it doesn’t include the social sector – devolution brings the incentive for organisations and institutions to work across silos such as health, education, justice and housing. At Changing Lives we see how support for the most disadvantaged in our communities is not as simple as ‘just providing a house’, or ‘just recovering from addiction’.  The levers that will bring about social justice and social change cut across a range of interconnected psychological, social, physical and environmental factors. We need our commissioners and our public sector leaders to genuinely join up their thinking, so that we can provide earlier prevention rather than using our resources to deal with the consequences of a failed system.  Devolution provides an opportunity for us to look at the entire system, to make sure it works for everyone based on individual strengths and needs.

Inclusion must include everybody

Until now discussions around devolution have largely focused on economic development, skills, employment and transport. We are not yet talking about human capital and as a result we are missing out on a wealth of talent and strength. Private and public sector representatives have been engaged in consultations with government, yet people who experience the most severe disadvantages are seemingly excluded from the conversation about the decisions that affect their lives. If we commit to real inclusion, we may see less fragmented, uncoordinated support services and see an increase in the number of people who go on to fulfil their potential.

We know that ex-offenders and people in recovery are the two groups that employers are least likely to recruit. And yet people who have overcome personal challenges have skills, problem solving abilities and personal strength that make them an asset to any organisation. I say this because I see this first hand: 20% of the people we employ at Changing Lives have lived experience.

While some of the findings of IPPR North’s report were shocking, what was striking at the conference was the passion and commitment from all speakers (and delegates) to work towards a more prosperous north. At Changing Lives we are committed to supporting people who are facing challenges in their life, but also to ensuring that the systems in which we work are fair and fit for purpose. To find out more about how we do this, take a look at our Theory of Change, or get in touch.

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