A month is a long time in the Northern Powerhouse. In July, when Transport Minister Chris Grayling announced that electrification between Leeds and Manchester would be replaced by new technology and Crossrail2 hit the headlines again, many felt as though the Northern Powerhouse was struggling to be heard and its disgruntled rail commuters again sensed that they were being ignored.
Fast forward to August, however, and the mood had changed. Rail travel in the North has dominated the news agenda, kick-started by our campaign for Northern Powerhouse Rail and our Chair George Osborne’s powerful words, and culminating in the Northern Transport Summit in Leeds, where the region’s civic leaders, transport chiefs and businesses braved the apocalyptic weather conditions to debate how the North should come together to secure the modern transport network its 14 million people deserve. Even the Prime Minister was talking about the Northern Powerhouse, on a trip to Teesside to launch the regeneration of the former SSI site by the South Tees Development Corporation.
The benefits of Northern Powerhouse Rail are clear: it would bring seven million more people – and three times the number of businesses – within a 90-minute journey-time of one of the great cities of the North. Significantly reducing journey times, for example, Leeds to Manchester in 30 minutes, Newcastle to Leeds in an hour, could create jobs, boost productivity and encourage increased inward investment. A transformational rail network, allied to a focus on the prime capabilities of the North – advanced manufacturing, energy, digital and health innovation – could create an additional 850,000 jobs and £1bn contribution to the UK economy.
Our campaign has a simple objective – for Government to commit to Northern Powerhouse Rail as the next stage in the UK’s high-speed network. First came Eurostar, then HS2 – the third needs to be NPR. Our letter to the Prime Minister has been signed, to date, by more than 50 companies including some of the region’s biggest employers, coming together to highlight the importance of the scheme for businesses. Equally important, and what Lord Jim O’Neill described as the ‘technical bit’ in his keynote speech at the Summit last week, is designing four HS2 junctions in the North to be compatible with NPR.
This is the first Northern Powerhouse Partnership campaign, reflecting the importance of transport to leaders across the region. Yet transport alone will not transform the North. Our report on the prime capabilities, due to be published at the end of September, will identify the specific steps needed to ensure the North becomes a world leader in those areas. Then, early in the New Year, our Education and Skills Board will issue their report, bringing together educational experts across the region to tackle low educational attainment at 16 and how the demand from employers for technical and higher level skills can better be served.
A recurring theme at the Transport Summit was the need for the North to speak with one voice – joining forces across political and geographical lines while maintaining strong regional identities. This lead to a resolution from the meeting to establish a representative forum of political and business leaders, including trade unions, voluntary and community sector, and universities, to speak for the North. How the region sets up such a body, and how it builds relationships with central government, will be critical to ensuring those areas yet to secure devolution can still be heard and treated on equal terms. If focused on the long-term challenges, it could contribute to achieving the ultimate aim of rebalancing the UK economy and creating a vibrant, dynamic North of opportunity and productivity.
Henri Murison is the Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP)