Last night, Cllr Sean Anstee, the Conservative candidate and Andy Burnham MP, the Labour candidate, sparred together at the first of the 2017 Devo Question Time series held by DevoConnect, Connecting the North – HS3 and Beyond. On the agenda was the city-region’s infrastructure, or lack of, and the ‘big picture’ vision of what needs to be done to ensure a transport system in the North that is fast, connected and inclusive.
The candidates were joined by Jon Lamonte, Chief Executive of Transport for Greater Manchester and Chair of the Urban Transport Group, Donna Hall, Chief Executive of Wigan Council and Neil McInroy, Chief Executive of CLES. Gill Morris, Chief Executive of DevoConnect, chaired the panel.
The need for a more social, inclusive agenda was at the heart of the discussion. Burnham’s promise to stop the bus companies from fleecing passengers was heartily applauded by the audience. Donna Hall emphasised the role that the mayor will have to play in linking diverse areas of policy – housing, transport, health care – to produce a unified vision. Neil McInroy criticised the inequity of Greater Manchester’s hub and spoke network but also questioned why our focus on ‘infrastructure’ is limited to transport; surely it is digital infrastructure that we need if investment and innovation is to be future-proofed.
Those that live in the outer boroughs of Greater Manchester can attest that the region’s present transport system has severe problems. Areas where the only way of travelling is by car; the fact that it takes two hours to travel the 200 miles to London yet almost an hour for the 40 miles to Leeds. Both audience and panelists recognised the need for significant improvement to aspects of the region’s network. Reducing congestion, addressing the many areas of Greater Manchester with no access to public transport, encouraging greater use of transport among 16-19 year olds, building a world-class transport network that rivals those of Copenhagen, Berlin, Seoul, improving air-quality – these visions and ambitions were shared by the panel.
Where disagreement arose was in how to achieve this change. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, the region’s agenda for infrastructural and planning over the next twenty years, proved to be a particular sticking point with Burnham, playing out the arguments we have seen across the newspapers in recent weeks, calling for the document be drastically rewritten and Anstee defending it as an essential if imperfect means of securing future growth.
The discussion was not just limited to intra-regional links; what about HS2, what about HS3? The creation of a true ‘northern economy’ in which Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire can more effectively grow together depends on this. Burnham called on a single bill for both lines to ensure that HS3 does not get thrown into the long grass by Westminster. With its seeming absence from March’s budget, it seems that the new mayor will have their work cut out.
What this session made clear is that it must be the beginning of a broader discussion on how the North secures the financial backing, that it needs to turn last night’s ideas into cycle lanes, into electrified lines, into a more integrated regional system that doesn’t prioritise the centre at the expense of the periphery. Both mayoral candidates talked of readdressing the treasury’s model of agglomeration investment that has led to Greater London receiving £6 per head for every £1 in the North. It was telling that when asked the thing that he wanted to see of the new mayor, Jon Lamonte’s answer was simple: the need for confirmation of funding and honesty about where the money will come from.
The challenge faced by the new mayor will be to translate their significant soft power into meaningful economic partnerships that can realise Greater Manchester’s infrastructural needs and to bang the drum for the North in such a way that will redress the current imbalance between North and South. How do they do this? Well, that’s the question the new mayor will have to answer when they wake up on the 5th May.