WHEN George Osborne set out his plan to create a Northern Powerhouse back in 2014, the former Chancellor identified four “ingredients that would transform the Northern economy: transport, devolution, innovation and culture”.
As Osborne himself recently acknowledged, progress has been made on three of these elements. With the creation of new city-region mayors in Greater Manchester and Liverpool, and ongoing discussion around devolution in Yorkshire, the North has taken its first steps towards taking political control of its own destiny.
On science and innovation, we’ve seen significant investment in new technologies like graphene, the super-light yet incredibly resilient material invented in Manchester. And in Hull, the Government has invested in the city’s hugely successful year as the UK’s Capital of Culture.
But of the four ingredients, it is transport infrastructure that will have the most transformational impact on the Northern economy. Northern England has a population of over 15 million – more than Greater London. It contains five of the UK’s 10 largest cities, and contributes 20 per cent of UK GDP.
However, there are remarkably weak links between the region’s biggest urban areas. There are, for example, far fewer commuters between Leeds and Manchester than would be expected for major cities just 40 miles apart – a distance shorter than the length of London Underground’s Central Line. This restricts opportunities for employers and employees, and contributes to the weak productivity that lies at the heart of Northern England’s economic under-performance.
The Northern Powerhouse vision is based on the idea of a radical transport plan that connects our great Northern cities through one integrated network. So what practical measures do we need to take to make this vision a reality?
First, we need to ensure that the organisations tasked with delivering new transport infrastructure are sufficiently well-resourced to do the job. In the short term, that means granting Transport for the North statutory status as soon as possible. This is an essential step to give the North a bigger say on a whole host of transport investment decisions.
In the immediate future, statutory status will make it easier for TfN to roll out a smart ticketing scheme across Northern England. Further down the line, TfN will be able to use its strategic clout to integrate the disparate transport networks operating across Northern cities.
Second, the Government needs to make a firm commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed new high-speed trans-Pennine line which would bring journeys between Manchester and Leeds down to under half an hour.
When Chancellor Phillip Hammond met with the three Northern metro-mayors last month, he was pressed to make a firm commitment to delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail. A modern, high-speed rail network connecting the North will supercharge our region’s economy.
At the Conservative Party conference, the Chancellor announced £300m to future-proof the railway network in the North, ensuring HS2 infrastructure can link up with future projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. This is a welcome start at addressing the years of underinvestment in Northern transport infrastructure, but now is the time to turn that talk to action – and that means making a real start on planning this transformational new route.
Third, we need to make sure the benefits of infrastructure are felt not just by commuters and businesses, but throughout our towns and cities. Improvements to rail stations can be the catalyst for the wider transformation of urban areas. HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail could provide huge opportunities for regeneration.
In Leeds, the planned improvements to the station will extend the city centre southwards, opening up large areas of underused land for new offices and homes. Likewise, the much-needed transformation of Manchester Piccadilly will provide the city with the gateway it deserves. However, these improvements will only be made possible with investment in the transport infrastructure that will bring wider economic returns.
If the Northern Powerhouse is to become a reality, it is transport infrastructure that is key to unlocking further investment. An interconnected North will be more attractive to businesses, offer greater opportunities for its residents and will be better able to unleash the dynamism of its major cities.
So, we need real powers for Transport for the North; genuine connectivity between our Northern cities; and regeneration for our urban centres. These are the ingredients that make up the recipe for Northern Powerhouse success.
Steve Gillingham is Director for the North at international consultancy and construction company Mace.