A higher housing target for the North East is the latest of many major changes happening in northern England. Government proposals to boost the draft regional spatial strategy (RSS) homes figure from 107,000 to 112,000 up to 2021 (Planning, 1 June, p3) are cautiously welcomed by Northern Way director Andrew Lewis.
The organisation, whose remit covers Yorkshire and Humber, the North West and the North East, has had a hand in all three RSSs. But Lewis insists that housing should not just be a numbers game.
"There must be a sophisticated residential offer to support the north's economic development," he argues. "The focus on numbers may well be sensible but the housing agenda looks and feels very different in the north," he adds. "Here it is more about renewal and an excessive focus on planning for numbers is not always suited to the flexibility of a modern economy."
Regions link for stronger voice
He praises the RSSs for being responsive to changing conditions. "It is very important that they are flexible and can provide a strong residential offer that complements a growing economy. They must also be flexible enough to be reassessed if the regional economy takes off, which is what we are hoping will happen."
Lewis, who assumed his post last month, heads up work on the Northern Way's 25-year strategy to bridge the gap between north and south. He believes that joined-up thinking across the north's eight city-regions is key to economic buoyancy. He is pleased to see central government backing the idea, especially the transport proposals in the strategy that the organisation issued in March.
This aims to relieve congestion on the M62, which could otherwise hamper economic growth, and looks at the prospects for ports as well as other pan-northern transport priorities to inform the government's comprehensive spending review.
"We have heard from people in government that this has been received positively," Lewis explains. "Central government is challenging parts of it but people in the three regions are very supportive. The fact that we can come to a northern view and join up transport with other economic issues gives us a powerful voice."
Lewis also backs the forum created by the Northern Way to link the city-regions' activities. "I am keen to take that forward and provide opportunities for them to compare experiences and develop a common policy agenda. This will help give them a stronger voice with central government too," he reasons.
He was also pleased to see indications in the budget that the comprehensive spending review might lean towards devolved decision-making. "It signals a real interest in devolving to city-regions, joining up regional strategies and helping strengthen science and technology. But there is clearly more detail to emerge this year," he recognises.
Another aim is to attract private sector resources to the north, which is seen as crucial given the constraints on public spending. Lewis will draw on his expertise as a board member of the Science and Industry Council and Newcastle Science City in the search for a modern approach to economic development.
The Northern Way has also set up a collaborative programme between eight research-based universities in its territory. Lewis is keen to see it develop. "It is not just about the service they can provide to northern businesses but also the fact that science is at the forefront of structural change," he points out.
Despite his Oxbridge and Treasury background, he is no stranger to the north. Brought up in Lancashire, he recalls clearly the results of economic decline in northern England in the 1980s: "We have made enormous progress but there is still a lot to be done. I cannot think of a better place to be working on these issues."
As deputy regional director at the Government Office for the North East, he oversaw a £500 million European structural fund investment in projects ranging from business start-ups to support for new technologies. "These are all areas where the North East needs to make substantial progress to close the gap with other European regions," he observes.
By the end of the summer, the Northern Way aims to report on its experience of regional strategy formulation. "One thing it will cover is what a distinctive northern sustainable community policy might look like," he reveals. "Will it be different to other parts of the country?"
Family: Married with two children
Education: BA in economics, Robinson College, University of Cambridge, 1991; MPhil in economics, Wolfson College, University of Oxford, 1996
Interests: Family, travel, photography
2007: Director, Northern Way
2006: Seconded to support Tyne and Wear councils developing city-region business case
2004: Deputy regional director, Government Office for the North East
2002: Head of tax policy, Treasury
2000: UK Board member, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
2000: Head of global policy and institutions, Treasury
1991: Treasury adviser