Ed Cox: England will be weaker unless Yorkshire unites over devolution

AS people in Yorkshire know all too well, we have seen past attempts at “regional policy” fall by the wayside, with the much-vaunted and popular Yorkshire Forward regional development agency and Northern Way come and go.

Now it is the turn of the Northern Powerhouse, a project which has galvanised leaders in the North since it first came into parlance 15 months ago. But now is the time to turn rhetoric into reality: otherwise the phrase risks becoming so stretched we forget what its original purpose is for. Earlier this summer, the “pause” of the TransPennine electrification rail line between Leeds and Manchester dealt a major blow to the Northern Powerhouse’s credibility. Without completing this key plank of the project, how could the government realistically claim to be building a powerhouse in the North?

Recognising the sense of opportunity and support to turn the tide, IPPR North and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) teamed up set out a different approach to meeting the North’s infrastructure needs, kicking off a debate about whether we need a Great North Plan.

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Support for this approach is burgeoning: in events we held in Hull, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, leaders from all sectors backed taking a pan-Northern approach to the North’s strategic needs.

What is the foundation for this optimism? Simply, it’s that northern prosperity is national prosperity – drive forward the Northern economy and everyone will benefit. IPPR North figures show the Northern economy is worth £289bn. It’s twice the size of Scotland, the 10th biggest in the EU.

The economies of the five biggest cities grew faster than anywhere outside London in the 10 years to 2013 with their populations growing at a rate of one new city of Manchester every 10 years. But here’s the catch: our Northern economy still underperforms relative to the world’s most prosperous economic regions.

But this is also our greatest opportunity. All around the world, it is not the big global hubs like London that are driving growth – it is the second tier cities. Somehow in England we are missing a trick. If we only halved the gap between the North’s economic output per head and the national average, then we’d grow the economy by £34bn – it would be nearly 12 per cent bigger.

And we know what it takes to achieve this. The OECD have done detailed research which identifies precisely the drivers of growth needed in different kinds of region. In the North it is skills, innovation and infrastructure to lay the foundations for connectivity and productivity.

In London, planned spend on transport infrastructure per head is £2,604. In Yorkshire and Humber it is just £391. We know that connectivity is critical and as things stand we have 40 per cent fewer commuter journeys between Leeds and Manchester than you would expect between two similarly-sized cities in mainland Europe.

The so-called “Hullapool” line, often referred to as HS3, should be as important to our nation as Crossrail. We need a Crossrail for the North – not just in the physical sense, but in the kind of ambition, vision and civic and political leadership that will make it a game-changer for London.

The Spending Review represents a really important opportunity for the Chancellor to put his money where his mouth is. If the Northern Powerhouse is to have any lasting substance – and not end up as yet another failed regional policy – then we’ve got to see new cash, real money, spades in the ground.

How can that happen when key projects have been paused and public spending still at a premium? Simply, it is to rally behind a pan-Northern approach to our strategic infrastructure needs and the crafting of a Great North Plan to connect our assets. But time is running out. Rather than complaining, our leaders must roll up their sleeves and get involved.

The demise of the Greater Yorkshire proposals – which had the merits or real scale and strong regional identity – means devolution in England will be all the weaker and its benefits more partial. It becomes much harder to argue for a rebalancing of economic development policy towards the North when even the Prime Minister is led to believe we all hate each other.

Our great Victorian cities and ports were founded on strong civic leadership, but business leadership was vital too. Indeed, civic leadership was often exercised by local business leaders. Speaking with one voice makes a powerful difference. Our Great North Plan provides that forum, but we need to see this done more consistently and much more frequently.

In Yorkshire it is to make sure that Greater Manchester is held to account; nationally our voice must not let George Osborne set the agenda alone for what is our Northern Powerhouse. And globally, our voice must make sure that our Northern economy can compete not with London – none of us want to live like that – but with some of the most prosperous and attractive regions in Europe and beyond. That should be our goal. With the leadership of Yorkshire to the fore, I have every confidence we will get there.

Ed Cox is director at IPPR North. Submissions for the Great North Plan close on Wednesday - see greatnorthplan.com for further details.