Whether north or south, everyone’s a winner

Rather than choose between north and south, when it comes to infrastructure investment it has to be both, says Nick Roberts.

Competition is healthy. It keeps us sharp, agile and at the top of our game. But not everything in life is competitive and it is possible to have winners without having to have a loser. London versus the Northern Powerhouse increasingly seems to be debated, and more specifically over the last week this has extended to Crossrail 2 versus High Speed 3 with concerns raised that London gets a new railway whereas the North ‘only’ gets an upgrade to existing infrastructure.

For me, it’s never been a choice between London or the Northern Powerhouse. It has to be both. It has to be about the growth of the UK. I’m not pretending that choices are easy but it’s an example of why the government created the National Infrastructure Commission, so they could take a long term, balanced and objective view of the country’s infrastructure needs in order to help make some of these decisions. 

I was pleased to see that in its first outputs the Commission proposed major schemes in both the North and London, and the Chancellor subsequently announced in the Budget that money will be made available to take forward key recommendations in both. Would I have liked the Budget to include more pump priming for the Northern Powerhouse, on a scale which would give it a real kick start rather than simply bringing forward investments that were planned already? Yes, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the North has got a raw deal. 

Let’s not forget that the government is proposing to provide less than half the cost of Crossrail 2 with the remainder being made up from fares, Business Rate Supplements and an infrastructure levy. This is a model that has been used successfully in London on Crossrail 1. London has the demand, it has the high density population, it is established as a world city and can attract significant investment and it has had many years operating under a single governance structure. 

These options aren’t open to the Northern Powerhouse. It’s in its infancy and it is much more difficult to attract these alternative funding sources for major infrastructure. However, when the amount of money to spend is restricted – as was clear in the Budget - we will have to make the most of the incremental approach. But this has to deliver benefits more quickly to be of real value. It is a case that money needs to be spent to draw in the additional investment we require, and this is the government’s gift to give.

Linked to this we should also consider the practicalities of delivering these sorts of major infrastructure schemes. Transport for the North (TfN) is a relatively new entity and to a large extent is still establishing itself. Significant progress has been made on the creation of a northern transport strategy and to provide TfN with the statutory powers it needs. But they will continue to need help from central and local government in order to deliver their ambitious plans. 

Transport for London has taken many years to build up its experience and expertise, plus it has the added benefit of clear governance, reporting to a single point – the Mayor of London. Cities in the North don’t even elect their mayors for at least another year and there will certainly be more work to do after the elections to establish pan-regional way of working. 

I live in the north and I believe in the region’s ability to be better than it is today. Comparisons with London would be a distraction and the focus needs to be on what outcomes we can achieve with the investments that are coming to the North rather than worrying about whether the money funds something new or an upgrade of existing infrastructure. Let’s be realistic, things don’t change overnight, but the direction of travel is right and with continued focus and determination, and by working together to continue making the North an attractive environment in which to live, work and invest, everyone can be a winner.

Nick Roberts is chief executive officer, UK & Europe at Atkins