A neglect of smaller towns and communities – the councils of which are forecasted by 2020 to face an average funding black hole of £5.8 billion – means a true northern powerhouse can never be realised, says Elizabeth Cronin.
It has been more than three years since the then-Chancellor George Osborne announced to the world the need for a ‘northern powerhouse’. The promises of connecting the ‘great’ northern cities like never before through enhanced rail links and investing significant amounts of public money into its science and technology industries now feel as distant as that leading light of the Coalition government who made them. Likewise, though absent from the forefront of government machinations, they still circulate in its backbenches and backchannels of influence, particularly in the Evening Standard Osborne now contentiously edits.
A month ago, Transport Minister Chris Grayling put the brakes on plans for both the electrification of the train line between Manchester and Leeds, and the upgrading of outmoded platforms of Manchester Piccadilly, and scrapped altogether the electrification of the lines between Nottingham and Sheffield and Cardiff and Swansea. Although Grayling argues total electrification – cheaper and greener – is no longer necessary because of his intention to introduce ‘bi-mode’ trains that run on both diesel and electricity, his announcement of the policy shift on the last day Parliament met before its recess certainly gives the impression of ducking debate. After just earlier this year gravely encouraging consumers to have a “long, hard think” about whether to buy diesel or low-emission cars, it is now uncertain whether he intends to take his own advice.
The dedication of the current administration to the northern powerhouse envisaged by Osborne is – perhaps predictably – lacklustre. Though, the devolution of powers to the regions was a critical cornerstone in its inception and Theresa May did oversee the election of the Mayors of Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Tees Valley this year. Though a welcome and solid gesture, without proper fiscal support from central government it can only amount to a shifting of accountability for the inevitable shortcomings of the cash-strapped local authorities that have struggled under austerity for nearly ten years.
In fact, Osborne’s brainchild is focused only on the North’s biggest cities. A neglect of smaller towns and communities – the councils of which are forecasted by 2020 to face an average funding black hole of £5.8 billion – means a true powerhouse can never be realised. Hoping that improving the biggest areas will allow the surrounding areas to take advantage in any meaningful way is unlikely in an era of cutbacks, especially as many of these communities still reel from the economic impact of the decimation of the mining industry. Even if the devolution and proper funding of Osborne’s ideal were realised, the concept still does not go nearly far enough in empowering every part of the region to enjoy something close to London’s booming growth: the thinktank IPPR North found government spending per head is £1,943 in London but just £427 across the North.
Investing in London and the main cities of the north is incredibly important, especially as the UK’s exit from the EU throws up a period of increased uncertainty and potential competition with other European cities for international business. At the same time, the side-lining of smaller northern towns threatens the realisation of a fair and balanced society. The northerly reality of affordable homes ruled out a relative lack of job prospects sees a brain drain of young talent pouring out of quiet areas, only bolstering the overcrowding and crime of Britain’s major cities’ housing crises. IPPR North has therefore concluded that increasing the industrial output of the smaller cities that make up 33% of the North’s economy is even more important than transport connectivity in making a viable northern powerhouse: cash injections into Manchester only solve surface problems.
As Osborne holds May’s feet to the fire on this, most recently asking her to commit to a northern HS3, it is unlikely even his lofty ambitions go far enough. The jarring absence of Lancaster, Preston, Wigan and Durham from the smorgasbord of political promises means progress can only falter; the jobs wrought from investment in all areas of the North, most especially in those even still yet to recover from the mining decline, would go a very long way towards the Premier’s vision of a country that works for everyone.