Minister backs call for link-ups to create Northern powerhouse

THE economies of the North could be linked together to create an economic powerhouse to rival London after the Government said it wants to back the region with investment.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening said major infrastructure projects like the £580m Northern Hub had her support and a fully integrated Northern economy with a “smart ticketing system” similar to London’s Oyster Card was achievable.

Business and transport leaders have welcomed her comments – but warned the Government must commit to funding projects if it is to make good on a promise to close the North-South divide.

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Ian Williams, Director of Business Representation and Policy at Leeds and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said not only were there long-term benefits from improved transport, but short-term it would create jobs in industries such as construction.

“The chamber welcomes comments from the Secretary of State around a more integrated transport solution for Yorkshire and the North,” he said. “This region has long suffered from disproportionate investment so members will be pleased to hear this is being addressed.

“With 95 per cent of the Leeds City Region’s population working in the region it is clear that an efficient mass transit system is essential to the economy. Projects such as the Northern Hub, Trans-Pennine electrification and smart ticketing will all help to ease peak time congestion.

“More importantly these projects have the ability to create jobs in the short to medium term in sectors like construction, manufacturing and engineering which are seen as vital to rebalancing the economy.”

The Northern Hub is a tranche of measures costing about £580m and drawn up by Network Rail to improve rail journey times and frequencies across the North of England.

Several parts of the scheme have already had the green light – chiefly the electrification of the Manchester-Leeds-York route, improvements on the Bradford line and the upgrade of the Hope Valley line from Manchester to Sheffield.

The remainder has been submitted to the Government by Network Rail as part of its industry plan for 2014 to 2019 and a decision is due this summer. Network Rail estimates if funded in its entirety it has the potential to boost the regional economy by more than £4bn.

A Network Rail spokesman said: “To realise the project’s total value of £4bn to the Northern economy and create between 20,000 and 30,000 new jobs, the final stages of funding will need to be supported in the rail budgets to be announced later this year.

“When completed, this project will be a clear demonstration of how investment in smart infrastructure can unlock economic potential by connecting communities across cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle with 700 new train services each day.”

Ms Greening, who was born in Rotherham, said the Government was committed to both funding transport in Yorkshire and devolving powers to the region’s councils to make their own decisions.

“We have already started funding Northern Hub and we are looking at the other parts of it,” she said. “I will be making an overall announcement shortly.

“One of the reasons this Government has invested in Northern Hub is that we realise we have got to work harder to integrate Northern cities and the economies around them.”

Both Sheffield and Leeds city councils have submitted bids to the Government for devolved transport powers under the “City Deals” programme.

Sheffield leader Julie Dore praised Ms Greening for being “receptive” to the issues facing the region, but said the Government must back words with action.

“This does seem positive news and an integrated ticketing system for the North would really help the economy,” she said.

“We are waiting for a result on our city deal bid. It is crucial that transport powers are devolved so we can take charge of our own future.”

Comment: Page 12.