Conference: Convention of the North, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Today was a nice break from the library to get down to Newcastle's Quayside for the inaugural 'Convention of the North' at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

The event was organised by leaders from all across the North of England as the chance to get together to 'create a powerful, coherent voice for the North'. Delegates at the event ranged from members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords through to Metro mayors, council leaders, and academics. Although this was an inaugural event, the need for more young people (of which I count myself) at the next event is imperative.


Despite another unfortunate interpretation of my surname to add to the tally, I collected my lanyard and made my way into the Baltic for the start of the convention.

The day began with an introduction from Pat Richie, Chief Executive of Newcastle City Council, followed by a keynote speech from Nick Forbes (Newcastle City Council Leader) on the importance of the inaugural Convention of the North.

The planning for the convention began in June, following which three key areas of discussion were outlined: Brexit, Transport and Skills. A paper was written for each of these key areas which highlight the challenges the North faces in the near and distant future. Following interviews with a range of leaders in the North, a set of propositions were put forward for each of the aforementioned sections as a starting point for deliberations on the day.

The schedule for the day was as follows:

- Panel Session 1 - Ambitions for the North

Mayor of Greater Manchester - Andy Burnham, Chairman of Transport for the North - John Cridland, Leader of Bradford Council - Susan Hinchcliffe, Chief Executive of Common Purpose UK - Marie Mohan

- Breakout Session - Brexit / Skills / Transport

Choice of discussions on Brexit, Skills or Transport with associated experts in each option

- Panel Session 2 - Inclusive Growth

Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University - Prof. Chris Day, Chair of Liverpool LEP - Asif Ahmed, Regional Secretary of North West TUC - Lynn Collins, Bradford Literature Festival Director - Syima Aslam, Director at ARUP - Dave Newton and Lancashire County Council Leader Geoff Driver

- Panel Session 3 - Breakout feedback and Next Steps for the North

Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region - Steve Rotheram, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council Leader - Sue Jeffrey, Newcastle City Council Leader - Nick Forbes

- Concluding words from Nick Forbes

In comparison to previous events I have been to regarding the "state of the North", this event felt somewhat more up-beat. From the offset there was an ambition for this convention to not be a "talking-shop" in which we gather to moan about what is wrong. Instead, the event was very much motivated by thinking about the assets that the North currently has and how it can begin to reinvent itself, particularly with the exit from the European Union in the not too distant future.

My interest in this event, in regard to my thesis on 'Rebalancing Britain' and as a student of architecture and urban planning, was to build on my understanding of how future policy is spatially planned and whether or not this is even considered. If we are to consciously challenge the issue of  regional inequalities, there is a need to know which regions are unequal in what areas and why. Some parts of the country have regenerated in ways that others haven't and not all strategies will play out the same in each location. Until this happens a dart may as well be thrown at a map.

The first panel session of the day focused on 'Ambitions for the North' therefore this was very much around ideas for 'what we should do' as opposed to 'what we are doing'. The point I found most powerful in the first panel was made by the Director of the BALTIC, Sarah Munro, who said that if we continue to deny significant investment in  creative and arts education in our schools and instead continue our focus purely on STEM, we will be 'shooting ourselves in the foot in the future' when we need creative minds for innovative STEM projects to bloom. As a future architect, this was particularly poignant as this is essentially the consensus for how architects believe they work - STEM and Arts don't exist in vacuums.

In a following discussion on the need to resolve the issue of London's graduate black hole, a point was made by Lord Shipley around the need to 'stop bashing London as its tax revenues help fund the North'. I agree slightly with this point as the issue is one which is embedded nationally and cannot be blamed solely on London (in the sense that Londoners are not at fault), yet it is this national governance structure which exacerbates London's superiority. Lord Shipley's further comments on how 'successful the Crossrail project has been' highlighted the real issue (which was also mentioned by Prof. Philip McCann [see previous blog post]) in what is perceived to be the 'national' imaginary - Crossrail is undoubtedly a regional investment, but we are sold it as though it is a national one. It may be a successful project but it isn't going to help Brenda from Bradford get home any quicker with her shopping. The perception of the 'national' imaginary is one that my project intends to shift by relocating government across the country.

During the breakout session period I chose to attend the discussion about Brexit. A real worry highlighted in this discussion was the EU funding which the North relies strongly on and where this money will come from when the EU tap is turned off.  The likelihood is that central government would somehow replace this funding, but one audience member expressed her serious concern about this as the North already feels forgotten today, never mind after the possible economic shocks following our exit from the EU. This then led on to a discussion about the need for a balance of representation and that if the North manages to represent itself as one powerful force to central government, then as a whole it is likely to be taken more seriously, as opposed to the patchwork of devolution deals currently in place. This brought to light for me just how much control central government has. This event could create some amazing ideas for change but unless central government agrees, nothing at all, or very incremental changes will happen. Since starting this research project this has been the key area of frustration expressed amongst many of the key players I have spoken to - there is a lot of control in one very small area.

Across the final two panel sessions and in Nick Forbes final speech, a primary tone was on how this was more than just an economic mission, but  more importantly a civic one. The need to get more people to care about change is critical and is why I always begin to tune out when talks about 'inclusive growth' and 'business incentives' begin -  most people don't know or care about what these mean and the discussions remain very much in the air. The leader of Wakefield City Council made a very open speech about how inclusive growth is imperative but we need to start talking about it in terms that, for want of a better phrase, normal people understand. He explained how he now only uses public transport and this has subsequently changed his opinion about the complaints being made by his local area as he now suffers the effects of failing transport too.

Overall the convention felt like a shift in the right direction for moving ideas on and into possible solid plans. It will take until the next Convention of the North to see whether anything changes, but in light of the failing of transport over the summer months and its national coverage (the reporter for the Manchester Evening News was later to the convention because of a cancelled train) I can't imagine it will be long before something begins to happen.

Concluding words from Nick Forbes to wrap up the Convention of the North

Concluding words from Nick Forbes to wrap up the Convention of the North

Tom Ardron