Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Northern Powerhouse – should the South East be worried?

Having been born in Bolton, exiled across the Pennines to Scarborough, and with the chip on his shoulder surgically removed now he’s a resident of Tunbridge Wells, Maxim’s Andrew Metcalf feels qualified to comment on the matter of the Northern Powerhouse.

Speak to the average person in the street up north and you’ll find a deep-rooted affinity to the term ‘northern’, but there’s a much deeper connection with their own particular community than a simple catch-all campaigning slogan. 

They might be separated by just miles, but Manchester and Leeds, and Manchester and Liverpool, have a legacy more of competition than collaboration, going back to the days of canals, the railways, Arkwright’s spinning jenny and Crompton’s mule. Add Newcastle to the Northern Powerhouse, and the scale of the challenge becomes almost insurmountable without huge investments in the aging rail and road infrastructure.

The north isn’t a catch all, it’s a network of communities with bitter rivalries and varied history, not to mention geographical differences. Today, the differences are most evident on the pitch at Old Trafford, Maine Road, Anfield, Goodison Park and Elland Road. Northerners might visit their neighbouring towns, even do business between them, but most wouldn't think about joining forces. 

I’m not being flippant, but unless there’s been an epiphany for many council leaders while out wondering on the Pennine Moors, bringing these communities together is going to be difficult. 

Much has been achieved within the Greater Manchester authorities I grant you, but is there much of a conversation going on between it and other major conurbations, whether it be Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle – I don't hear it.

Efforts to redress the North-South economic imbalance by attracting investment into northern cities and towns has to be welcomed. However, to argue London and the South East are driven by financial services, and the desire to see the North once again strong in manufacturing and attracting new science, technology and service sector jobs, is too simplistic.

What the Northern Powerhouse does give politicians is a big banner to try and get people to march behind, but at the moment it seems like it's a headline grabber.

Power cut

And it appears the manifesto pledges didn't last long: the long-awaited upgrade of the York-Manchester trans-Pennine route has been shelved as part of the Government’s delayed £38.5bn plan to upgrade the UK’s ailing rail network.

The location and state of our motorways is an interesting case in point too – the M62 is the most northerly motorway in England, stretching from Liverpool in the east to Hull in the west via Manchester and Leeds. Motorways are the arteries that could fuel the powerhouse, but they just don't link the different conurbations efficiently. The M62 requires urgent upgrading to cope with the traffic it already carries, let alone make it fit for the future.

The Chancellor has called for a statutory Transport for the North, with its own budget. However, before the Government gets carried away with the thought of introducing Oyster-style ticketing across the north, it needs to get its track upgrades in place.

Just because the Northern Powerhouse has the public support and warm words of George Osborne doesn't guarantee it will happen.

Business votes with its feet

When it comes to business investment, the north still struggles to compete with London and the South East. Much has been made of the BBC’s move to Salford Quays, but that, like the decision to give free TV licences to the over 75s, was a politically-motivated decision. 

London remains the magnet for HQs, with the likes of Leeds and Manchester securing regional offices and back office operations, and I can’t see that changing just because it’s rebranded the Northern Powerhouse, unless it’s one huge Enterprise Zone with financial incentives, and that seems unlikely.

To the cynical among us, many might see the emergence of the Northern Powerhouse as a political master stroke by Osborne to take away political support in this once Labour stronghold. But for it to retain any support the initiative needs more than simply giving Stockton South MP James Wharton the title Minister of the Northern Powerhouse, it needs to deliver on its promises, and with five years to go to the next general election that might not materialise. 

Should the South East feel threatened?

In a word, Yes. The Northern Powerhouse has successfully distracted politicians from looking at how this region, next to London, one of the world’s most influential cities, can bring about real sustainable growth. 

London is an economy in its own right and brings with it challenges and opportunities for the South East. Investment ripples from the capital, yet everyday it sucks in hundreds of thousands of commuters. While these commuters achieve higher wages, with much spent in the South East, it also causes problems in terms of securing skills locally, or forcing local firms to pay the premium to secure recruits.

One of the challenges lies closer to home, and that’s the need to speak strongly with one voice, which is a lesson we can learn from the Greater Manchester authorities.

There is the real danger the South East may lose out when it comes to funding unless we can put a compelling case to ministers. 

Peter Jones, Chairman of the South East LEP hit the nail on the head when he said recently: “It is important that the economic potential of many communities throughout our part of the South East are not overlooked. 

“Too often we are seen as the near neighbours of leafy Surrey and on the doorstep of London, yet we have many communities that unfortunately match those in the north in terms of their social deprivation and economic underperformance. 

“We would therefore urge the Chancellor and his colleagues in cabinet to look more closely at Kent, Essex and East Sussex, and unitaries of Medway, Southend and Thurrock, as we would consider we offer a series of quick wins when it comes to boosting the overall productivity of the UK.” 

In the UK we are often too scared to back our winners – choosing to support the underdog. I’m not advocating no support for the Northern Powerhouse, but would urge that the Government doesn't overlook the prospect of greater success sitting on the doorstep of Westminister here in Kent, and the wider South East.
My wish list would include:
  • The Lower Thames Crossing – but that’s not next to the current Dartford Crossing 
  • Improvements to the M2 extending it all the way to Dover (as was previously planned) 
  • A real solution for Operation Stack – and that’s not a lorry park at Manston 
  • Ebbsfleet Garden City 

And I’m sure there are many more, but that’ll be enough to be getting on with. Now where is my flat cap?

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