Sarah Longlands interview: Why our towns are just as vital as cities in future of the North

Political Interview............      Sarah Longlands, the new director of the IPPR North think tank. 6th July 2018. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
Political Interview............ Sarah Longlands, the new director of the IPPR North think tank. 6th July 2018. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

She leads the ‘dedicated think-tank for the North of England’, and Dr Sarah Longlands is passionate about ensuring the Yorkshire’s towns are not left out of the Northern Powerhouse debate. Rob Parsons went to meet her.

They provide the picturesque setting that many bring to mind when thinking of rural North Yorkshire, but as Dr Sarah Longlands can testify the tourist-friendly delights of the Dales are only a small part of the vibrant economy in England’s largest county.

Political Interview............      Sarah Longlands, the new director of the IPPR North think tank.'6th July 2018.'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Political Interview............ Sarah Longlands, the new director of the IPPR North think tank.'6th July 2018.'Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Prior to taking over as director of the independent think-tank IPPR North, she had a spell working in economic development for North Yorkshire County Council and was struck by the area’s diversity of challenging issues and its varied business offering.

The former academic is clear about the important role played by places like those she worked with in North Yorkshire, as well as the big cities that suck in much of the investment.

And as a key figure in the debate about how the North can makes the most of its advantages in the years to come, she wants to make sure that the Northern Powerhouse rhetoric doesn’t allow people and places to be left out of the debate.

A Tale of Two Yorkshires as cities, towns and villages in our ageing region drift further apart

Describing her time in North Yorkshire, where she worked early in her career, she tells The Yorkshire Post: “You have issues of disadvantage in Scarborough through to tourism and the national park challenges in parts of the Dales, so it was a really interesting experience to see that.

“You travel round the Dales as a tourist and think ‘this is beautiful’, but that so belies the real beating heart of Yorkshire’s economy in terms of the small and sometimes not-so-small businesses that are in the heart of the Dales sometimes, they are exporting across the world and are at the forefront of the economy.

“You have to peel beneath the layers to understand how an economy works and what is really at the heart of it.”

Originally from Northern Ireland, Dr Longlands went to university in Scotland and has been heading south ever since. In May she was appointed to lead the Manchester-based think-tank IPPR North, which earlier this year made waves with its critique of the Government’s lack of transport infrastructure spending in northern England.

Living in Bolton and a regular train commuter, she is well-placed to see the impact of the disastrous introduction of new rail timetables earlier this year, ironically caused by delays to an electrification project in her adopted town.

“I have been commuting into Manchester for nearly ten years, and it has always been bad”, she tells The Yorkshire Post during a visit to Leeds city centre. “You don’t think it can get any worse, and then in the last two months there has been an intensification of chaos.”

Devolution and transport are key building blocks for the think-tank’s work and she wants the Government, which last month put further obstacles in the way of a Yorkshire-wide devolution settlement, to turn its attention back to the subject.

Sarah Longlands: Funding gap behind North’s rail woes

“We have still got a very piecemeal, patchwork-quilt like approach to devolution across England really, but particularly in the North, large areas not covered, particularly in Yorkshire,” she says.

Making the most of the technology industry as the future of the economy will be a key focus for IPPR North under her leadership and she believes the North is well-placed to capitalise on the pressures on London which might drive away many innovators.

“There is a big concern about skills in tech, and the instant reaction from policy-makers is we need more STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teaching in primary schools,” she says.

“I am not going to argue with that, but what about the people who are in jobs now which are probably going to be defunct in five or ten years, how do we help them to train up now to move into the new jobs that haven’t been invented yet. And the traditional pipeline we have for education doesn’t work.”

This week, The Yorkshire Post has explored the growing demographic gap between the region’s thriving cities and its ageing towns and villages in its series A Tale of Two Yorkshires, revealing a trend that is set to continue in the coming decades.

A regular source of complaint from northern leaders in recent years has been the centralisation of the economy in London, and Dr Longlands fears that the desire to concentrate growth and investment in cities could result in the same problem on a smaller scale in the North.

“The way in which that narrative has developed means that cities are automatically seen as more important and therefore there is the implication that if you are not a city you are less important and less valuable to the debate,” says Dr Longlands.

“For me it is about trying to dispense with that mentality to say this isn’t about the big cities being more important but that we all play a role in the economy.

“And try to have a more nuanced, grown-up conversation about that, to say, actually the big cities need those small and medium-sized towns, because they provide housing supply and good quality of life.

“If you look at the figures, small and medium-sized towns in the North generate about a third of the overall gross value added.

“There is a message that we should not assume the whole economy is dependant on our big cities, actually those small and medium-sized towns, like my experience in North Yorkshire, actually play a really important role in generating income too.”

IPPR North, together with the London-based IPPR think-tank, are often described as centre-left in their political ideology.

But Dr Longlands rejects efforts to put her organisation in a defined box. “One of the legacies of coming from Northern Ireland is that you don’t have a strong Conservative or Labour tradition which means that in my thinking I’m not burdened by those distinctions in my own head, because I never grew up with it.

“Politically, we are independent, we are not in anyone’s pocket, we don’t work for any of the political parties in terms of producing research for them. I am keen to keep it that way, for us it is about the radical ideas, no matter where they come from.”