In this article Jerald Solis, Business Development and Acquisitions Director, Experience Invest, reviews the successes and shortcomings of the Northern Powerhouse and provides his outlook for the future
While Brexit continues to dominate the news cycle as we edge closer to the October 31 departure date, Boris Johnson’s recent evocation of the Northern Powerhouse project is an encouraging sign for businesses, investors and key stakeholders keen to see the North flourish.
Boris Johnson breathed new life into the project last month when he said: “I want to be the Prime Minister who does Northern Powerhouse Rail”. The project, initially announced in 2014 by George Osborne, is an ambitious attempt to link Manchester and Leeds by high-speed rail, and while Jake Berry has been the minister responsible since 2017, it has remained closely associated with the ex-Chancellor.
Alongside the rail link, the Northern Powerhouse comprises a number of different strategies designed to bring economic growth and regeneration to the region. This includes increased levels of financial investment, publicly-funded improvements to local internet speeds and devolving political power to newly created metro mayors across the North.
Has the Northern Powerhouse been a success?
Five years later, it’s clear that some progress has been made. Nonetheless, more action is evidently needed to help make the North more dynamic and prosperous. While the project hasn’t been a foremost priority since Osborne left Number 11, a recent report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North indicates that there’s been an uptick in jobs and investment since 2014.
According to the report, there are 34,000 more jobs in professional, scientific and technical jobs, plus a further 54,523 jobs in manufacturing roles. Employment has also increased by approximately 7% compared to the UK average of just over 6%.
Perhaps most encouragingly of all, the report revealed that the North has experienced a slightly higher level of economic growth than the national average. The region’s GDP rose by 10.7% over the period, compared with 10.6% for the UK as a whole and 9.7% for the UK excluding London.
However, when it comes to the expected improvements to infrastructure – a cornerstone of the initial pledge – the Northern Powerhouse strategy has been somewhat underwhelming. Transport spending has failed to reach the promised levels, and we are still awaiting the publication of the preliminary plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail. What’s more, the quality and reliability of transport in the North still lags behind analogous services in the South-East; approximately 5% of all transport services were either cancelled or over half an hour late in 2018-19.
Ultimately, if the government is to truly demonstrate its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse then it needs to fund improvements to existing transport networks, hasten the completion of the promised high-speed rail link and raise the general standards to the levels found elsewhere. To this end, outsourcing administration to a new body, Transport for the North, has been a positive step towards ensuring greater autonomy for the region.
What needs to be done to reinvigorate the Northern Powerhouse?
While Boris Johnson’s determination to complete the Northern Powerhouse rail is laudable, it remains to be seen whether his initial enthusiasm will be followed by a firm commitment. Transport and infrastructure are merely two dimensions of what is a wide-ranging project. Ultimately, the Northern Powerhouse is about empowering the region’s business community, and this cannot be achieved by government policy alone.
Still, more businesses, investment and housing are required to ensure that the North continues to develop a thriving knowledge economy. Private developers have been proactively involved in the construction of new-build developments in high-growth cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, ensuring there is enough residential and commercial real estate to meet future demand.
Consequently, further devolution is required to local leaders who are capable of implementing the policies their region needs. Indeed, business leaders have long called for the mayors of city regions to be able to control taxation and planning as well as transport.
Ultimately, Boris Johnson’s pledge to fund Northern Powerhouse rail is indicative of a renewed attempt to improve the North’s infrastructure and remake it into the global business hub it’s long had the potential to be. Experience Invest has worked alongside councils, private developers and investors to make this vision a reality, and we will continue to do so over the months and years ahead.
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