Progressing the Powerhouse

The National Infrastructure Commission’s report calling for major and immediate investment in the north needs to be implemented without delay or big opportunities will be missed argues Stuart Thomson.

You cannot listen to a Government statement or speech from a Cabinet minister without hearing the phrase ‘the Northern Powerhouse’. It is the brainchild of George Osborne and he has done a first rate job at championing its prospects across the cities of the North and the notoriously sceptical Westminster as well.

It has though become all things to all people.  It can, for instance, secure the devolution of power from Whitehall to cities across the country, not just those in the North; it can transform the economy of the North; it can rebalance spending, especially in transport; and it can make former rivals work together.

But that disguises the many challenges it faces not least in its actual delivery by central Government.  Critically transport is one area that offers the prospect of bringing the Northern Powerhouse to life and providing some much-needed momentum. The report from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was an important step in this and it did not disappoint.

The NIC’s ‘High Speed North’ report contained 11 recommendations but its ‘central finding’ was that there should be immediate action on roads and rail, namely the M62 and HS3. The report states from the outset that “the North needs immediate and very significant investment for action now and a plan for longer-term transformation to reduce journey times, increase capacity and improve reliability”.

However, unlike HSs 1 and 2, HS3 is more of an upgrade of existing rail lines to shorten journey times from the east coast to the west coast rather the development of a new dedicated line.

The rail side would also see the redevelopment of Manchester Piccadilly station, both with short term improvements and a longer term plan. The report also mentions that this work would “stimulate significant regeneration”. So the role of transport infrastructure in regeneration is recognised.  Whether this could be reflected in paying for some of the NICs plans will doubtless be considered.

The NIC also moves into areas beyond transport. Whilst the NIC see transport improvements as necessary they have to be part of a ‘broader strategy’ that includes “improvements in education, workforce training, research and innovation, spatial planning and wider infrastructure investment”. In other words, if only the transport part happens then the Northern Powerhouse will not succeed.

The benefits of better connections across the North are discussed at some length and roads are considered alongside rail. Highways England are urged to bring forward capacity improvements on the M62 between Liverpool and Leeds and funding should be made available for capacity improvements on the M56, M1/M2 junction, M60/M62/M66 junction and the M1.

For the longer term, studies into projects such as the Trans-Pennine Tunnel should continue but there also needs to be thought to regional and urban connectivity as well as links to key international gateways.

Contradictions though remain in the Northern Powerhouse agenda. Buses legislation to devolve powers is being promised but the Department for Transport wants to retain an approval role. The Northern Powerhouse will only achieve success if progress is made on these transport schemes as quickly as possible. They will help to bind the council leaders together who are largely, but not exclusively, Labour. At the moment, the Northern Powerhouse is really the only game in town for them and they can see obvious benefits if it is delivered.

An eye though also has to remain on national politics. George Osborne may go on to be the next leader of the Conservative Party following David Cameron’s pre-announced decision to step down before the next election. But should he not win, it is unlikely that he would remain Chancellor either.  The question is whether he will still be in the Cabinet to champion the Northern Powerhouse or whether a colleague will take on the challenge. Whitehall is still nervous about the idea of letting go and if there isn’t a senior minister to hold their feet to the flame then it could all go very quiet.

The final recommendation in the report said that “sufficient funding should be made available by government to support the development of an ambitious cross-modal strategy for northern transport with HS3 at its heart”. The very next day in his Budget, the Chancellor endorsed the main recommendations in the report, as well as the other NIC reports, and provided £300 million of funding to improve northern transport connectivity.

This shows that as things stand, the Government is really committed to the Northern Powerhouse and that it isn’t just some clever piece of marketing dreamt up by Osborne as critics have suggested. 

There is uncertainly but this just makes it even more important that progress is made as quickly as possible and the opportunity presented by the NIC report is grabbed.

Stuart Thomson is head of public affairs at lawyers Bircham Dyson Bell.