Better comms can reboot devolution and the Northern Powerhouse

For an idea that its critics often derided as 'spin', the Northern Powerhouse is actually in need of much better PR.

Is it time for the Government to reboot its messaging around the Northern Powerhouse?
Is it time for the Government to reboot its messaging around the Northern Powerhouse?

Barely a week goes by on regional TV without a fresh discussion on the Powerhouse’s demise since May ditched Osborne.

And recent Government recommitments to the Northern Powerhouse have been crowded out by northern commuters angry at Transport Secretary Chris Grayling's decision to downgrade electrification of rail in the region.

But what can communicators passionate about social change do to help drive this agenda and spread power and opportunity across the UK?

1. Reach out beyond Westminster...  

To consumer PRs this seems obvious, but snobbery towards broadcast media (Today and Newsnight aside) remains rife in think-tanks. Placing a blog on Prospect is great but, for reach, the graft that goes into setting up broadcast is worth it: post-Brexit, communicating beyond SW1A isn't a 'nice to have' or a dress rehearsal for Today, it’s an essential tool in building support for new thinking on the economy and public services.

2. ...while playing creatively into national agendas

A welcome attempt by most national outlets post-Brexit to give more attention to regional stories aside, for the lobby at least, the Northern Powerhouse as it stands isn’t going to be the same priority as when Osborne was chancellor.

The lesson? Feed stories into ongoing Westminster narratives: for instance, the Powerhouse hit national headlines recently when former Number 10 comms chief Katie Perrior revealed May’s advisers effectively banned the phrase. Variants on a recognised lobby story - i.e. May’s team ditching high-profile Cameron policies - offer a foot-in to get any devolution news through the door.

3. Build broad campaigns for change

Pragmatic partnership between Osborne and Manchester councils created something real in the form of Devo Manc.

So why don’t we now see new coalitions of England’s leaders uniting for fresh powers? It’s in the interest of politicians outside the North to support this, too: if Mayor Sadiq Khan wants public support for Crossrail 2, he'd be better joining forces with his northern and Midlands counterparts for further devolution than going alone with what most of the country will see as special pleading for London.

4. Communicate deeds, not words

People have had enough of the visionaries. Osborne’s Powerhouse vision got much right, but few would argue vague promises and men in high-vis did much to convince displaced northerners last June who plumped for Leave.

As we enter a new phase for devolution, the visibility of the newly elected metro mayors is already starting to bring benefits, but to really convince a rightfully sceptical public, communicators must now get across the idea of better services and spades in the ground.

Whose powerhouse is it anyway?

Ultimately, though, as new powers head to the regions, it’ll be comms people from the North who can fire up the Northern Powerhouse.

The new Northern Powerhouse Partnership especially will be one to watch over the coming months if we’re going to see a new kind of Powerhouse – one led by northern businesses, councils and communities, not Whitehall – reboot the stalled devolution.

Ash Singleton is external affairs manager at IPPR North

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