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Northern Powerhouse: From vision to reality

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2018

The Northern Powerhouse vision is finally within reach – it’s time we grasp that opportunity and turn it into reality, writes Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP).

It is just over four years since the words ‘Northern Powerhouse’ were first introduced by then chancellor George Osborne in a keynote speech at Manchester’s Museum of Science of Industry. The concept, drawn up by leading economist Lord Jim O’Neill – then commercial secretary in the Treasury – was based on a sound and clear economic principle: that the north of England had not pulled its weight for too long, leading to an unbalanced country and an overdependence on London for the UK’s economic performance.

Osborne proposed a vision of a collection of northern cities, close enough to work together across strong regional identities, joining forces to take on the world. Jobs, growth and inward investment would be stimulated, creating opportunities for the people of the north and ultimately rebalancing the economy.

Fast-forward to 2018 and both Osborne and Lord O’Neill, although out of government, are still heavily involved in driving the Northern Powerhouse forward, bringing together business and civic leaders across the region. The NPP was created by Osborne, who now chairs the organisation, when he left government to bring the north together with one voice, working across political allegiances to secure the best possible outcome not simply for the Northern Powerhouse, but for the whole of the UK.

Businesses of all sizes play a key role in NPP, with senior representatives of some of the north’s largest and most influential employers on the board, including Manchester Airports Group, Siemens and Arup.

But our civic representatives are equally crucial to making our voice heard to government and bringing together the north’s great cities, towns and communities. Powerful civic leaders joined by those such as metro mayor Ben Houchen, the north’s leading Conservative politician, and Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, the Labour leader of Bradford City Council, who has agreed to help champion our work on education. Their convening power, influence in their cities and insight make them an invaluable part of the organisation, which also, through the support of the APPG for the Northern Powerhouse, convenes them with Westminster politicians.

Our local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) play an important role as well. The NP11 was launched by Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry in Newcastle in June. This group will see the 11 LEPs in the north coming together to sit on a new government-funded initiative. The board will step beyond individual local areas of focus to advise the government on vital issues such as how to increase productivity, overcome regional disparities in economic growth, and tackle the historic north-south divide.

Clearly there are significant synergies between the remit of the NP11 and ours, and we are working closely with them to ensure we identify the significant priorities to convey to government, local authorities and businesses. These will sit alongside the work of the first Convention of the North, to meet under the leadership of Cllr Nick Forbes for its first full session this September.

Transport priorities

It is clear that transport dominates the Northern Powerhouse agenda. Commuters and families caught up in the six weeks of rail chaos across the north faced unacceptable cancellations and delays, having a major impact on productivity, job opportunities and quality family time. More than one million hours of workers’ time was lost, with councils, schools and the NHS among those most affected.

Although train operators have warned that disruption will last until November, most services have returned to something that resembles normality. But normality is nowhere near good enough. Until the north’s railways are significantly improved – in terms of frequency, capacity and journey time – an increase in productivity will be a vain hope, and the Northern Powerhouse vision will not be realised. In the short term, our civic leaders need to consistently and coherently make the case to government that the north needs further rail devolution to take control of its own destiny. Transport for the North was established precisely to do this important role; it is in all of our interests to encourage government to give them the powers they need.

In the longer term, we need a transformation. Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), which would link our great cities and communities with greater capacity, reliability and frequency, would be a game-changer. Leeds to Manchester in under 30 minutes, with up to six services an hour; Newcastle to Leeds in an hour; and Manchester Airport connected to the high-speed network as the Northern Powerhouse’s international airport – this is what the future of northern transport could look like.

Even more important than getting from A to B with certainty and more quickly, however, is the potential economic impact NPR would deliver. The benefits to businesses and commuters alike of networked cities, easy to access and move between, are compelling – and, in a post-Brexit world, could also be a critical factor alongside a fit-for-purpose road network in attracting overseas businesses to relocate and take advantage of the Northern Powerhouse’s UK-leading strengths in advanced manufacturing, energy, digital and health innovation.

Take Bradford, the UK’s youngest city. Connecting Bradford through NPR could create 15,000 additional jobs and secure £15.5bn to the northern economy. It would open up career and further education opportunities for the next generation that are currently beyond them. It takes 61 minutes to travel from Bradford to Manchester; under NPR, it would be 20.

Educating the north

Of course, these people need to have the skills to grasp the opportunity this improved travel creates. Our Educating the North report revealed that disadvantaged pupils in the region are one whole GCSE grade behind their better-off London counterparts, and it set out 14 specific recommendations for how we tackle this. Those proposals include challenges for schools, such as investing in better leadership; local authorities, creating a skills plan for the north; businesses, mentoring and directly engaging with the same number of children as they have northern employees; and government, such as investing £300m in making sure every child across the north is school-ready.

Transport, education and skills are three of the key ingredients to building the Northern Powerhouse. Next on our developing programme for change is closing the north-south health outcomes divide, unlocking digital connectivity and readiness, and ensuring the north leads the next Industrial Revolution. Tackling all of these major issues needs everyone working together – not just government and business, but every one of the 15 million people in the Northern Powerhouse doing their bit to drive the north’s ambitions.

All of us can contribute to creating a better north, sharing our ambitions and ensuring government play their part fully to drive it forward. Together we can truly deliver on the Northern Powerhouse vision set out four years ago, and make it a reality.

Devolution and the Northern Powerhouse will be discussed extensively at EvoNorth, an exclusive event committed to driving forward the devolution agenda in the north. Don't miss your chance to attend, visit the website here

Top image: Wilka Hudson, Flickr


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