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Firing up the Northern Powerhouse

4th January 2017

What are the necessary conditions for a resurgent economy along the M62?

I have long held the view that the economic axis of Manchester and Leeds is critical to the growth of the Northern economy, and that as a consequence thinking big means more imaginative collaboration between these and other cities.

We need to consider carefully how we can create a true northern economic hub, to provide the region with a stable economic base. To achieve this, we will need to meet the complex mix of common interests while at the same time recognising the different needs of local identities within that region. Wigan is not Wakefield, Bury and Barnsley share some things but are divided by others. The Northern Powerhouse has to harness both the shared interests of the region and the unique local characters within it – whilst recognising that its competitors lie beyond the region and not within it.

This will require sustained investment in the physical, social and economic infrastructure that underpins employment and a high of quality of life.

"What are the factors behind London and the South East's enviable success and what needs to be done to replicate these?"

  • A dense web of transport connections that are reliable, affordable and connect people to places;
  • Consistent and cohesive governance with ability to plan over the medium to long term over the whole economic area;
  • Access to Europe is critical as a key market for goods, services and talent;
  • Quality of life and opportunities to broaden experiences.

A city region on this scale therefore has huge challenges - local identities and loyalties, costs and technical obstacles. However, without a detailed, carefully considered plan for a northern giant, the pressures in the South East will become less sustainable and the consequences for social and economic inclusion, community cohesion and economic growth intolerable. It becomes a city region that surrounds a national park, but with areas of brownfield land available for new development. Equally there are great cultural facilities - from the Deep in Hull to the Tate in Liverpool - how can these be accessed across the city region and become part of a shared experience, building a regional identity?

Connectivity is crucial, physical links by road and rail that enable people to move freely within the conurbation are one major factor in London’s economic success. HS2 will make a different to North South travel, but without corresponding investment in East West links the full benefits in the North will not be realised.

Political leadership is also a critical factor in driving investment – clearly demonstrated by the ‘City Deals’ in northern cities where clear leadership is being recognised by access to enhanced resources.

As Siemens’ Juergen Maier pointed out at the Northern Powerhouse Conference, if every devolved region does its own thing it would be the worst possible scenario. We need a national industrial strategy where we agree which regions are going to take ownership of which areas, to create world-class clusters that reflect local entrepreneurship, skills and resources. For example in Turkey there has been a major cluster development programme reflecting local circumstances to boost its economy prior to accession to the EU, recognising that local economic conditions require locally specific solutions as not every city can be a creative or a digital hub. There are also critical interfaces between city regional governments and between regional and national bodies. 

If there is real intent to achieve this rebalancing, governance and transport are the crucial factors.

These could include:

  • A single elected body or extended combined authority with a city– region manager on a five year term for the entire area, extending beyond Greater Manchester which gets a Mayor in 2017;
  • A coherent and integrated economic and transport strategy that develops and sustains clusters of activity across the Northern Powerhouse which are distinct;
  • A high speed rail link from the Mersey, with its promise of a rejuvenated privately funded port,  across to the Humber with a direct link to Lille that allows European rolling stock to use UK railways;
  • Reopening old transport links for turn up and go services that are clean, efficient and affordable;
  • Using renewable energy to power transport, investing in community owned assets that provide a return to create neighbourhood level investment;
  • Enabling and empowering municipal enterprise to drive development/investment.

This cannot happen without imaginative and dynamic planning, investment across all sectors and active engagement. There are also parallels with the economic convergence programmes implemented by the EU in counties pre and post accession, developing the institutions and processes necessary to make best use of the investment. This is a programme that lasts beyond the horizons of any government. The North is rising again, but it may take a generation to deliver the level of change required to unlock its true potential.


Richard McCarthy is an executive director in Capita’s property and infrastructure business.

This article first appeared in Building magazine



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