FOLLOWING the remarkable election victory for Boris Johnson, there is considerable focus on measures to help close the North-South divide, greatly promoted by the Power Up The North campaign which has been led by this newspaper.
The Northern Powerhouse is firmly on the agenda, perhaps not in a way since the very first days of the introduction of the concept in June 2014. To turn this attention into real action, all of education, industrial policy, transport infrastructure and devolution need to be top priorities.
On Monday, Mr Johnson told his newly-elected MPs about government plans to direct billions of pounds of investment to the North – welcome news for the areas whose support delivered last week’s crushing election victory. He needs to back these repeated strong words with action, and not overpromise and underdeliver.
A decision about HS2 will soon need to be made. Other key actions, especially for Northern Powerhouse Rail, must feature in the Budget early next year. This will demonstrate whether the Prime Minister is truly serious about the North beyond Brexit. Northern Powerhouse Rail is absolutely vital to linking up northern towns and cities, enabling the agglomeration concept that lies at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse idea.
If this Government is indeed determined to repay their new-found Northern voters and back the Northern Powerhouse, clear and specific actions, including outlining priorities and start dates for key schemes like the proposed Leeds to Manchester rail link, must now happen.
We need a meaningful focus on improving the infrastructure of the country and committing the £39bn needed to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Our train network has had no new line from West to East since the Victorian era, and its lack of reliability and capacity continues to cause misery for commuters and sluggish productivity for businesses.
We need major infrastructure investment, which means backing the Transport for the North plan in full.
Improving local bus services alongside trams, the lifeblood of communities, must also be a commitment.
Education and skills must also be a priority to transform those areas left behind. Establishing a new Northern Schools Board, increased funding and further powers for elected mayors and combined authorities over skills, and perhaps adopting new, smarter versions of so-called Opportunity Areas, could narrow the educational attainment gap whilst getting our whole workforce to embrace the opportunities of the next Industrial Revolution.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership will make recommendations to the Education Secretary on what must be done to deal with the underlying causes, with commitments for funding education needing to include at least £1bn each year for five years to support the long-term disadvantaged in the North, not especially budget-busting amounts, but ones that could ultimately have a huge impact on productivity.
In addition to all of these, an absolute key to unlocking the potential of the Northern Powerhouse is devolution – giving greater control to our regional leaders to tackle challenges and embrace opportunities in their area.
As I recommended in my report for the Cities Growth Commission, it is only by devolving further powers that we will see the North pull its true weight in economic terms alongside interventions in transport or closing the North-South gap in education. Under the previous administration led by Theresa May, we did not see a single new devolution deal started. Business and civic leaders are backing 100 per cent devolution across the North with increased powers for those areas with existing deals.
In the Queen’s Speech a devolution framework must be central. It is too easy for government departments, such as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on full fibre broadband or 5G, to seek to drive a policy agenda from Whitehall which should be led by our Mayors. There must be a legislative requirement that powers returned from Brussels and existing Whitehall responsibilities be passed to Mayors where needed to enhance productivity.
Furthermore, for levelling up to be meaningful, we should see powers and funding already given to Greater Manchester, like over housing, given by right to those like Dan Jarvis who has an existing deal which all the relevant local councils in South Yorkshire must allow to proceed.
We must address the profound disconnection of communities in many of our Northern towns from the nearby city engines of growth, and for which Whitehall-based policy-making is not the answer. The prize is a Northern virtual city of 15 million people unlocking £1 trillion economic growth by 2050.
Lord Jim O’Neill is a leading economist, vice-chair of Northern Powerhouse Partnership and chair of Chatham House.