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What next for the Northern Powerhouse?

Posted 30/08/2017

by Christian Cosby

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The North remembers the long list of infrastructure commitments that have been pledged by successive governments but never delivered.

For all the talk of a Northern Powerhouse, journey times in the North have barely changed since the 1960s. Where they have, they are often slower. For example, as Andy Burnham (Metro Mayor for Greater Manchester) has pointed out, it takes longer to travel from Manchester to Chester than it did in 1962.

Meanwhile the case for investment in northern infrastructure has never been more compelling. The North represents the seventh largest economy in Europe, larger than Norway and Sweden. It has eight ports, five major cities, 29 universities and 15 million people.

The North is brimming with potential, and enhancing connectivity between cities will enable the region to present itself as a coherent economic opportunity. This is all the more important for attracting investment in the context of Brexit.

Yet the Government cast its commitment to northern infrastructure into doubt in July this year, when it appeared to scrap plans to electrify a number of rail lines in the North – plans that were included in its 2017 manifesto.

This sparked outrage in the North. But what can regional leaders do to get the government to change tack?  After all, bemoaning a raw deal from Westminster has yielded few results to date.

To address this, lobbying group Downtown in Business called last week for a unified voice to secure greater infrastructure spend in the North. The group convened an emergency conference, attended by Iceni Engagement,  on Wednesday 23 August where business leaders and politicians met in Leeds to draw up an action plan, geared towards securing results in the Autumn Budget and beyond.

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram (Metro Mayor for the Liverpool City region) have thrown their weight behind the plans, as have numerous council and business leaders. They have called for concrete action from the Government, centred on three key points:

• Honour in full commitments already given to deliver improvements to rail services across the North
• Prioritise its [the Government’s] manifesto commitment to deliver new west-east rail infrastructure reaching across the North
• Set out a fairer distribution of transport funding (revenue and capital) across all regions of the country

It is clear that the Westminster-centric approach has not worked so far and the so-called ‘Devolution Revolution’ presents a real opportunity for the North to take greater control over decision making. Downtown in Business is right to establish this broad-based, cross-party lobbying group that can draw on the new clout of the metro mayors. The long-term aspiration is to build an equivalent of London First – the hugely successful lobbying group for the Capital – for the North, and this could be a real game-changer.

This might just be the turning point. An organised and united North taking charge of decision making, rather than relying on Westminster, is the best chance for unlocking the investment that the North needs and deserves.