Seeking strategic influence and control

Improving transport, housing and public services will boost economic growth in the North West, LEP chair Mike Blackburn tells Bernadette Ballantyne.

Greater Manchester is moving forward with some exciting plans over the coming years, not least a target to become a net contributor to the UK economy by 2020.

“At the moment net tax revenues are £16.5-£17bn and public sector spend is £21-£22bn. Our ambition is to be a net contributor,” explains Mike Blackburn, chair of the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership. 

“We want to grow the economy at one end and reduce spend on the other but this is not about cuts, it is about re-sequencing activities locally and working better with providers and stakeholders.”

Blackburn, who is also regional director for BT, says that the trailblazing devolution deal signed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) in November, will help the city meet its goal. From early 2017 a directly elected Mayor will control spending in key areas such as transport, strategic planning, housing and policing. At the same time the GMCA will gain powers over existing health and social care budgets, skills and training. 

“We want much more strategic influence and control alongside government on things like how the skills budget gets spent, on how transport impacts on the economy, how we deal with apprentices, how we get better integration of health and social care.”

“The deal is about how you get local areas to have more strategic impact on spend from Whitehall. At the moment decisions are made in London and implemented in Manchester with no real understanding of what is required here,” he says. 

“We want much more strategic influence and control alongside government on things like how the skills budget gets spent, on how transport impacts on the economy, how we deal with apprentices, how we get better integration of health and social care.”

The mechanics of the deal are quite rightly unique to Manchester. The Mayor will become part of the combined authority taking a new 11th seat. “The current arrangements are very integrated with the combined authorities and not the same as London. Each of the Leaders holds a strategic portfolio and accountability for each of these goes back to the Combined Authority,” says Blackburn. This means that majority votes are needed and the new Mayor would not be able to implement plans that are “at odds” with the rest of the city. 

Long term planning is vital

Having more power over transport and spatial planning should in theory give the Greater Manchester region the ability to plan long term, something which Blackburn, who is also deputy chair of the North West Business Leadership Team, says is very much needed. “A couple of weeks ago we put forward the business views on infrastructure to the Department for Transport which means more integration and having a 20 to 50 year aspirational plan rather than just working in control periods of 5 years so that nothing really gets done on the big scale.”

Just as importantly he says, short term activity has to be linked to the long term vision to give certainty to business and a great example of the potential for this is around future high speed rail plans. “A lot of businesses don’t want to invest their time in thinking about high speed as it is 15-20 years away. They want to hear what is happening today, but the communication of these plans is not integrated. There needs to be an integrated set of plans on what is happening today to alleviate issues and how that links to the medium and long term.”

At the moment Blackburn says that the current approach sees short term projects and action plans integrated with funding opportunities. “It feels a bit like a land of unintended consequences. Good gets done but makes things worse elsewhere.”

Fortunately this is now being addressed. The new Transport for the North (TfN) organisation, which was formed following recommendations from HS2 chairman David Higgins in his report “Rebalancing Britain – from High Speed 2 towards a national transport strategy”, is a truly integrated organisation comprising of local authorities, central government bodies such as the Highways Agency and Network Rail as well as businesses. “It is looking at how to make the rail, road and air links strategically advantageous for the north not just individual needs,” says Blackburn.

That is not to say that good work is not being done. Blackburn points to the incredible development of Manchester Airport, which is the region’s only international hub handling 22 million passengers per year. Its long term plan saw it invest in a second runway which opened in 2001. “It is growing and growing and growing,” he says. “At a local level they integrated that airport growth with the production of local plans for the tram and for the rail links in negotiation with the train providers … and that has all worked.” But he says there is more that could be done to support future growth. “Looking at national intercity rail and motorway activity, that is where it is a bit less connected than it should be.”

High Speed 2 link

An interim report on high speed rail will be published by TfN in March but it is expected that following on from recommendations in the Higgins report there will be a direct link to Manchester Airport. This will be a powerful draw for long term investment, in an area which is already growing with the Airport City North and World Logistics Hub developments which sit alongside the M56. “If we are definite that there will be a station there and start developing the plans around it, then developers and investors start to see the land in a very different way knowing that a high speed link is going to come in,” says Blackburn.

For anywhere that will connect in to the high speed network planning for the future now is vital. “It all comes back to having an integrated plan. High speed rail in our view is set to answer a challenge about intercity connections between London and the northern cities,” says Blackburn pointing out that this also means resolving the cross Pennine challenge where both road and rail links are under capacity. 

“The Manchester to Leeds route takes over an hour, but it is less than 30 miles so it is almost the same journey as it was 100 years ago. If you get it down to 30 minutes people then think about commuting from Leeds to Manchester and vice versa, and businesses can access different labour pools. You would get better productivity,” he says. “In my view the first priority is linking Manchester to Leeds in a better way, then Liverpool to Manchester, then to Sheffield and Hull.”

This then is an interesting time for Manchester, which sits at a pivotal position along the high speed rail route, and is also no stranger to making major investments in transport infrastructure.  “Building the [original] tram network cost more than a billion and nothing came from Department for Transport until more recently. We have proved that we have a vision and can bring it to reality on big investment projects.”

For future projects this is vital as cities in the North vie for funding against the rest of the UK. Blackburn says that High Speed 3, can be compared to London’s Crossrail in its scale. “If Crossrail was overlaid on to the North it runs approximately 15 miles west of Manchester and almost touches Leeds. HS3 is the equivalent in the North.”

Investing in such major projects is vital, says Blackburn if Northern cities are to grow their economic contributions and ensure that the UK is a multi-regional economy. “We can’t let the city regions fall any further behind. We have to get the regions back where they should be. Productivity and economic growth are inextricably linked to quality of housing, quality of transport, skills and health, which are all public sector activities. So we have always had the plan to link growth and reform at the same time.”

LEP Growth Fund

In July 2014 Greater Manchester secured its £476.7M growth deal covering investment between 2015 and 2021. In November it was announced that the city had secured an additional £56.7M to spend on transport, skills and business services. During 2015/2016 there is a particular focus on town centres. 

“Each town has its own priority areas from better information systems and multi modal ticketing to new junctions, cycle and bus facilities. Projects are being funded in Bolton, Bury, Prestwich, Stockport, Oldham, Ashton, Stretford, Airport City and others,” says Blackburn.

Major growth fund schemes include: 

  • A £40M life sciences inward investment fund, in partnership with Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership. 
  • A £35M investment programme for further education colleges and further education providers in Greater Manchester. 
  • Establishment of a new Quality Bus Network to deliver major improvements to bus services on the Route 8 from Bolton to Manchester. 
  • Acquisition of 12 additional light rail vehicles for the Metrolink network. 
  • A new Ashton Town Centre public transport interchange. 
  • A new Stockport Interchange and town centre access programme
  • Key centre transport improvements: A range of transport improvements in local town centres. These will improve junctions; cycle and bus facilities; and pedestrian facilities.
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