22 FEBRUARY 2017

This weekend, following social media criticism which was rapidly becoming mainstream news, the organisers of the Northern Powerhouse conference and exhibition issued an apology around the lack of female panelists, vowing to do better in the future: ‘We understand the Northern Powerhouse can never fulfil its potential if we ignore half the population.’

In terms of reputation, management owning the problem, issuing a statement and vowing to do better is, in normal circumstances, the right response. In this case though the gender make-up of the event’s conference panel has led on to broader questions about the Northern Powerhouse project more widely.

As I wrote in a blog post last week the current narrative around the Northern Powerhouse seems almost Victorian in tone – all about taking big and bold decisions around transport infrastructure, encouraging new developments and construction combined with arguments about the need to embrace new technologies. Of course, all this is important, but alongside this there is a need to make the Northern Powerhouse personal – to seriously consider how the North can do things differently to make things better for people and communities. Surely we have other concerns along with ‘unleashing economic potential’ – tackling the social care crisis so that no one stays in hospital longer than they need perhaps; or developing the North’s strengths in the arts, culture and sports.


Angel of the House, is a new play by Alex Keelan, showing at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre as part of the Wonder Women Festival next week. Alex was Women’s Officer at Manchester City Council for five years – leaving in 2013, partly because she thought she could make more of a difference through art and through her writing. Alex’s play is inspired by the true story of Hannah Mitchell, one of the first female councillors who made a difference precisely because she saw things differently from everyone else in the room.

Commenting on the current debate around the Northern Powerhouse, Alex says: ‘It’s pretty clear that if you get very similar people from very similar backgrounds and put them together in a room and ask them to come up with a strategy for the North they are all going to agree with each other. That’s obvious. My play is based on women across three generations but these issues around inclusion and giving people a voice keep coming up. In some ways we’ve not moved on.”

Which is why the concept of a ‘People’s Powerhouse’ is fast gaining traction. There is a growing recognition that up until now the scope of Northern Powerhouse discussions have been too limited. There is an increasing sense that the Northern Powerhouse needs to reach out to a much broader range of people and work for everyone.


A separate ‘People’s Powerhouse’ event is now being planned for May and a broader People’s Powerhouse movement fast gaining pace. One of the organisers is Tracy Fishwick, Managing Director of Liverpool-based Transform Lives. Commenting on this week’s Northern Powerhouse conference, Tracy says: “For me the issue isn’t just female representation, it’s that there’s very little diversity at all. With our event in May we will be doing everything we can to make it inclusive including providing free or subsidised places.”

Currently the Northern Powerhouse has a huge focus on ‘unleashing economic growth’. But Tracy points to recent reports such as from the University of Manchester’s Inclusive Growth Unit which show that it doesn’t necessarily follow that economic growth trickles down and benefit the communities that need it most.

That’s why May’s People’s Powerhouse event will look at themes including health, housing, jobs, skills, equality, digital, transport and connectivity. The agenda will be deliberately open because the organisers don’t want to have pre-decided what are the important issues – they want to invite debate and ideas and allow people and organisations from the widest possible range of backgrounds and perspectives to contribute in a way they simply haven’t been able to up until now.

They certainly seem to have hit the right note. Tracy says they’ve been inundated with offers of support and help.

And it’s amazing to think the whole People’s Powerhouse push might not be happening at all were it not for the media spotlight shining on the choice of panellists for this week’s Northern Powerhouse Conference.

To get involved in the People’s Powerhouse email Tracy Fishwick at [email protected]


Helen Furnivall is Managing Director of Manchester based High-Rise Communications which was set up in November 2016. Helen previously held senior communications and strategy roles at the British Red Cross. She tweets at @helenfurnivall