Tuesday, 5 April 2016

'Growth for The North' - taking local ownership of the Northern Powerhouse

At a recent LGA meeting we heard from Lord Adonis, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission and former transport minister. It was interesting, not just from the insight he gave into the work published on Crossrail Two, Northern transport connectivity and energy connections but for the context he have for decision-making. It is that context that is relevent to any discussion about the 'Northern Powerhouse'.

Much of the debate around the Northern Powerhouse is characterised by either negativity (witty statements like 'Northern Poorhouse' or 'Northern Powersham', for example) or else by an emphasis on devolution to 'metro-mayors' in the 'core cities'. It seems to me that this misses the point and worse reinforces two unwanted images of The North - as supplicants arriving cap in hand at national government's doors asking for more, and as a bunch of rivalrous, squabbling places unable to get their act together on priorities for economic growth. I would add that the capture of the agenda in some of those cities - Manchester especially - by the idea of 'inclusive growth' drags The North still further away from the place it needs to be to deliver on a Northern Powerhouse.

Lord Adonis made the observation that Crossrail Two got the green light for two reasons - the planning, costing and economic impact work was undertaken and sound, and Transport for London (TfL) as well as the London Mayor were committed to provide 50% of the scheme's funding. The result is that a £16 billion scheme will actually cost central government less than half that amount releasing the economic benefits (that show up in GDP figures and growth) to the whole nation. This is the sort of deal any national government wants to see - regardless of politics.

Right now there is not only no agreement or consensus in The North about infrastructure investment priorities but there is no mechanism for business in The North to do what's happening in London and fund 50% of that investment. There are any number of schemes and projects - ranging from the lunatic (a trans-Pennine tunnel under the High Peak) through to the sensible (reducing rail travel times east to west). And although Transport for the North has made a start with sifting these options and alternatives, it has made only a little progress and it isn't clear how its governance or administration functions. Crucially there is no means for The North to capture business contribution (for example via a business rates supplement) as national government is reserving this supplement for those places who take George Osborne's shilling off the drum and accept a 'metro-mayor'.

If, to use an eminently sensible idea, Transport for the North were to propose a new motorway linking the M56 to the A1(M) North of Bradford and Leeds, the expectation is that central government - through its agencies - would stump up all the cash. And the same would go for HS3, widening the A64, a rail link to Leed-Bradford International Airport and an upgraded Pennine crossing from Newcastle to the M6. We have to find a mechanism for local contribution and pooling that potential business rate supplement should be the best approach - assuming national government can set aside its obsession with Heseltine's rewarmed core city focus and the idea of 'metro-mayors'.

The essential requirement if we are to deliver the infrastructure elements of a Northern Powerhouse is cooperation between Merseyside, Manchester, Leeds-Bradford, Teeside and Tyneside (and the rest of The North) rather than the creation of competing entities based on travel-to-work geography in regional cities. This isn't to reject city devolution or even the idea of mayors but rather is to say that a Northern Powerhouse is best served by a bigger vision encompassing the whole of The North rather than a set of visions focused on the challenges of city government.

We're talking here about infrastructure - indeed specifically transport infrastructure - but there are other areas where The North needs to collaborate rather than compete - our education system underperforms compared to London and the South East, our urban mass transit (where it exists at all) is limited and not focused on economic growth, our cultural sectors lack bite, arts funding is London-centred, and we still experience a steady trickle of the bright and best to elsewhere in the world.

The problem, however, is compounded by the approach of city leaders and Northern Labour politicians to the problem - the Northern Powerhouse may not be a reality as yet but it's only going to become one if you get behind the idea and make it work. Simply shouting a lot about The North's problems and blaming all of this on central government isn't especially conducive to getting any commitment - let alone momentum - behind the idea of working together with that government to improve The North's economic performance. If the only approach is to stick a begging bowl under the treasury's nose and say 'fill it up please' then we will never have the growing, self-reliant and powerful North of England that surely everyone up here wants.

It is possible for leaders in The North to make this work but we won't get there if all our time is spent waiting for someone else to jump, fussing about how too much of it is about Manchester (or Leeds, or Newcastle), or making sad noises about how badly done to we all are. The work of Transport for the North, albeit quite tentative, suggests that wider collaboration on a similar basis around the whole economy not just transport is far more important than the geography of a 'combined authority' in Yorkshire or the list of 'asks' in a city devolution scheme. We need to take the idea of Transport for the North - cooperation, collaboration - and create something like 'Growth for the North' that's prepared to fund the feasibility and prepare the ground for more central government investment in The North alongside similar investment in growth from The North's businesses and residents.


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