Are we nearly there yet? Four years of the Northern Powerhouse

Remember him? Ex-chancellor George Osborne launches his Northern Powerhouse Partnership in autumn 2016. Image: Getty.

Saturday 23 June marks a significant anniversary in British political history. No, not that one: it’s four years since George Osborne, in a speech at Manchester’s Museum of Science & Industry, first coined the phrase “Northern Powerhouse”.

Osborne’s speech prompted equal parts intrigue and scepticism amongst certain sections of the Northern intelligentsia. Following the abolition of regional development agencies in 2010, and the quiet death of Labour’s now largely forgotten Northern Way agenda, regional policy for the North had lacked an overarching theme. Local Enterprise Partnerships, constrained by austerity and with few formal powers, struggled to make much of an impact. City-region devolution was (and remains) uneven and confused.

The Conservative-led government needed to reframe the regional policy debate, and the Chancellor desired an electoral strategy that would enable the Tories to compete in key Northern marginals like Bolton West and Hazel Grove. And so, the Northern Powerhouse was born.

What is the Northern Powerhouse?

In that 2014 speech, Osborne described four ‘ingredients’ for building a more prosperous North: transport; devolution; science & innovation; and culture.

Science and culture have since largely fallen from the radar, aside from a handful of investments in the likes of Manchester’s new Factory theatre and the upcoming Great Exhibition of the North. What remains is fundamentally a regional development project with transport planning as the central policy lever, with the goal of creating a region with “not one city, but a collection of Northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world”.

Right now though, Osborne’s promise of improving infrastructure to the point where traversing the North is the “equivalent of travelling around a single global city” appears laughable – especially given the recent well-publicised rail meltdown. The gap between rhetoric and reality for stranded commuters seems wider than ever.

A new civil service for the North

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Northern Powerhouse project as a failure already. Its most significant achievement is the creation of Transport for the North (TfN), the UK’s first ever pan-Northern government body. Established in 2015 and granted statutory powers in April this year, TfN can now be regarded as the Powerhouse project’s civil service.

These are very early days, but there are signs that having a proper Northern institution with real, if limited, powers has helped shift the terms of the agenda somewhat. Osborne’s early vision was criticised in some quarters for its over-emphasis on the North’s largest cities, and Manchester in particular.

Where the magic happens. Click to expand. Image: TfN.

By contrast, TfN’s recently published draft Strategic Transport Plan provides a welcome focus on the assets of smaller cities and towns. It leans heavily on evidence from 2016’s Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review, which identified the four most important sectors, or ‘prime capabilities’ for the North: energy; digital; health innovation; and advanced manufacturing. The plan then identifies seven ‘growth corridors’ where transport infrastructure requires improvement to better connect the key businesses working in these areas.

Interestingly, the plan is not based on the existing transport network; nor does it simply aim to connect the North’s most populous cities. As such, it challenges the concept of the Northern Powerhouse as an overly urban-centric model that risks turning Manchester into a London of the North and ignores other parts of the region.

The role of high speed rail within the Powerhouse agenda reflects this. The “high speed rail connection from from Manchester to Leeds” described by Osborne in 2014 has morphed into Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), a less grandiose plan combining new lines, improvements to existing infrastructure and, crucially, a new station at Bradford, a city too often ignored in previous attempts at regional development.

The proposed corridors. Click to expand. Image: TfN.

HS2, meanwhile, is increasingly regarded by many Northern politicians as an opportunity for urban regeneration rather than a transformational infrastructure project, with the biggest improvements to connectivity likely to be felt more in Birmingham than Manchester or Leeds.


What happens next?

Of course, this is only a plan, and one at a very strategic level. As yet, there is no confirmed funding for NPR. Few of the proposed schemes have planning permission yet. Battles over Green Belt and compulsory purchases are some years off.

But the act of moving some power out of Whitehall to a new, independent, sub-national government body is significant and, given the UK’s long-standing reluctance to devolve governing capacity from the centre can be regarded as an achievement. The momentum of the Northern Powerhouse project can only be maintained if it is run from the North.

The Northern Powerhouse probably isn’t what George Osborne thought it would be, and by itself the project won’t reverse 100 years of relative decline in Northern England. But it is something, and unlike previous attempts at regional development will increasingly be driven by an organisation outside the Whitehall bubble. The current rail debacle is a major test – but it need not signal the end of the line for the Northern Powerhouse.

Tom Arnold is a PhD Researcher in the Department of Planning & Environmental Management at the University of Manchester. He tweets as @tj_arnold.

 
 
 
 

Uncertainty is the new normal: the case for resilience in infrastructure

Members of the New York Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One help evacuate people from their homes in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

The most recent international report on climate change paints a picture of disruption to society unless there are drastic and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And although it’s early days, some cities and municipalities are starting to recognise that past conditions can no longer serve as reasonable proxies for the future.

This is particularly true for America’s infrastructure. Highways, water treatment facilities and the power grid are at increasing risk to extreme weather events and other effects of a changing climate.

The problem is that most infrastructure projects, including the Trump administration’s infrastructure revitalisation plan, typically ignore the risks of climate change.

In our work researching sustainability and infrastructure, we encourage and are starting to shift toward designing man-made infrastructure systems with adaptability in mind.

Designing for the past

Infrastructure systems are the front line of defense against flooding, heat, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. City planners and citizens often assume that what is built today will continue to function in the face of these hazards, allowing services to continue and to protect us as they have done so in the past. But these systems are designed based on histories of extreme events.

Pumps, for example, are sized based on historical precipitation events. Transmission lines are designed within limits of how much power they can move while maintaining safe operating conditions relative to air temperatures. Bridges are designed to be able to withstand certain flow rates in the rivers they cross. Infrastructure and the environment are intimately connected.

Now, however, the country is more frequently exceeding these historical conditions and is expected to see more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Said another way, because of climate change, natural systems are now changing faster than infrastructure.

How can infrastructure systems adapt? First let’s consider the reasons infrastructure systems fail at extremes:

  • The hazard exceeds design tolerances. This was the case of Interstate 10 flooding in Phoenix in fall 2014, where the intensity of the rainfall exceeded design conditions.

  • During these times there is less extra capacity across the system: When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it’s water, electricity or even traffic.

  • We often demand the most from our infrastructure during extreme events, pushing systems at a time when there is little extra capacity.

Gradual change also presents serious problems, partly because there is no distinguishing event that spurs a call to action. This type of situation can be especially troublesome in the context of maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls which currently plague many infrastructure systems. Will cities and towns be lulled into complacency only to find that their long-lifetime infrastructure are no longer operating like they should?

Currently the default seems to be securing funding to build more of what we’ve had for the past century. But infrastructure managers should take a step back and ask what our infrastructure systems need to do for us into the future.


Agile and flexible by design

Fundamentally new approaches are needed to meet the challenges not only of a changing climate, but also of disruptive technologies.

These include increasing integration of information and communication technologies, which raises the risk of cyberattacks. Other emerging technologies include autonomous vehicles and drones as well as intermittent renewable energy and battery storage in the place of conventional power systems. Also, digitally connected technologies fundamentally alter individuals’ cognition of the world around us: consider how our mobile devices can now reroute us in ways that we don’t fully understand based on our own travel behavior and traffic across a region.

Yet our current infrastructure design paradigms emphasise large centralized systems intended to last for decades and that can withstand environmental hazards to a preselected level of risk. The problem is that the level of risk is now uncertain because the climate is changing, sometimes in ways that are not very well-understood. As such, extreme events forecasts may be a little or a lot worse.

Given this uncertainty, agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design. In our research, we’ve seen how a number of cities have adopted principles to advance these goals already, and the benefits they provide.

A ‘smart’ tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is designed to supplement the city’s stormwater drainage system. Image: David Boey/creative commons.

In Kuala Lampur, traffic tunnels are able to transition to stormwater management during intense precipitation events, an example of multifunctionality.

Across the U.S., citizen-based smartphone technologies are beginning to provide real-time insights. For instance, the CrowdHydrology project uses flooding data submitted by citizens that the limited conventional sensors cannot collect.

Infrastructure designers and managers in a number of U.S. locations, including New York, Portland, Miami and Southeast Florida, and Chicago, are now required to plan for this uncertain future – a process called roadmapping. For example, Miami has developed a $500m plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at-risk oceanfront property.

These competencies align with resilience-based thinking and move the country away from our default approaches of simply building bigger, stronger or more redundant.

Planning for uncertainty

Because there is now more uncertainty with regard to hazards, resilience instead of risk should be central to infrastructure design and operation in the future. Resilience means systems can withstand extreme weather events and come back into operation quickly.

Microgrid technology allows individual buildings to operate in the event of a broader power outage and is one way to make the electricity system more resilient. Image: Amy Vaughn/U.S. Department of Energy/creative commons.

This means infrastructure planners cannot simply change their design parameter – for example, building to withstand a 1,000-year event instead of a 100-year event. Even if we could accurately predict what these new risk levels should be for the coming century, is it technically, financially or politically feasible to build these more robust systems?

This is why resilience-based approaches are needed that emphasise the capacity to adapt. Conventional approaches emphasise robustness, such as building a levee that is able to withstand a certain amount of sea level rise. These approaches are necessary but given the uncertainty in risk we need other strategies in our arsenal.

For example, providing infrastructure services through alternative means when our primary infrastructure fail, such as deploying microgrids ahead of hurricanes. Or, planners can design infrastructure systems such that when they fail, the consequences to human life and the economy are minimised.

The Netherlands has changed its system of dykes and flood management in certain areas to better sustain flooding.

This is a practice recently implemented in the Netherlands, where the Rhine delta rivers are allowed to flood but people are not allowed to live in the flood plain and farmers are compensated when their crops are lost.

Uncertainty is the new normal, and reliability hinges on positioning infrastructure to operate in and adapt to this uncertainty. If the country continues to commit to building last century’s infrastructure, we can continue to expect failures of these critical systems, and the losses that come along with them.

The Conversation

Mikhail Chester, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, Arizona State University; Braden Allenby, President's Professor and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University, and Samuel Markolf, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Arizona State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.