A rare and precious unity: Reflections on the first Convention of the North

By Daniel Timms

To those following the news, summer 2018 has seen something of a break in tradition. The ‘silly season’, with its round of eye-rolling headlines, has been rather more serious than before. Debate has raged about grave questions of national importance, and there is much brooding about what the future holds.

Against this backdrop, the Great Exhibition of the North, hosted by Newcastle and Gateshead and coming to an end this week, has been a ray of light. The exhibition, featuring innovation, science, culture, and art from right across the North, has vividly displayed an extraordinary depth of creativity and innovation. Across the UK, many have heeded the call to #GetNorth and enjoy the exhibitions and events. Where better, then, for the first Convention of the North? The symbolism – that the North is an innovative region with huge potential – could not be clearer.

That this Convention was far from an ordinary conference could be seen by the variety of delegates. Bishops, Metro Mayors, festival organisers, business leaders and trade union representatives were all present. ‘Collaboration’ was mentioned frequently, with leaders acknowledging that previous initiatives had sometimes been blunted in their impact through internal geographical divisions. No longer. As Cllr Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, put it in his closing thoughts, this was about a new kind of politics, which could offer hope to those weary of the combative politics of Westminster.

Metro Dynamics had the privilege of being policy partners for the Convention. We worked closely with leaders across the North to develop papers on the three critical issues identified for the first Convention: Brexit, skills, and transport. These papers were not settled statements of intent, but rather “provocations” to stimulate clear thinking and discussion. In breakout sessions, leaders from across society debated the proposals, endorsing ideas such as increasing the powers of Transport for the North, better engaging employers in education, and shaping the new Shared Prosperity Fund in such a way that would help Northern regions prosper after Brexit. The discussion also generated new ideas which could be explored, such as an employment charter for the North to increase the number of good quality jobs, and investigating how lottery funding could be retained within the areas it is raised.

Delegates were enthusiastic for the Convention to continue, with Housing and Culture being put forward as future subjects for discussion. The presence of members of the Youth Parliament at the Convention highlighted the importance of listening to the young as we shape their future North, and many argued for a more prominent role for their voices at the next Convention.

If one word could summarise the Convention it would be ‘optimism’. In the face of negativity nationwide, the Convention sounded a note of unembarrassed positivity. The North has made huge strides, and will continue to do so.