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.

 
 
 
 

Five ways the UK can prepare for its next heatwave

Brighton, 2014. Image: Getty.

The 2018 summer heatwave in the UK broke records – and it won’t be the last spell of such severe heat. In fact, climate change means that hot summers which would once occur twice a century may soon occur twice a decade. As the population grows and ages, this will lead to more premature heat-related deaths and place extra strain on physical and mental health services.

Previous research on resilience to heatwaves, such as last year’s report by parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, has focused predominantly on policy, regulation and infrastructure. Such research barely addresses behavioural or social responses that occur during hot weather events and how these can contribute to building resilience.

This is what my own work looks at. In a new book I explore these ideas and assessed how to improve resilience to climate change through communication, collaboration and co-production. So what can the UK do to be better prepared for heatwaves in future?

1. Remember that heatwaves are a serious threat

People must be trained to think more carefully about their vulnerabilities and responses to hot weather. Everyone’s experience of hot weather varies, and this is often associated with positive memories of past summers where they’d enjoy the heat, venture outside and make the most of a potentially short-lived summer.

But this often leads to people being more exposed to the effects of the sun, which affects their health and productivity and puts extra strain on hospitals. Hot temperatures also cause roads to melt and train track to buckle, resulting in delays. As hot weather becomes more common, people need to bear these things in mind.

2. Factor in behavioural change

While appropriate regulation and policies are important, they must represent how people respond to heatwaves and how their experiences affect their behaviour. This can be incorporated into broader thinking around other topics.

Buildings, for instance, can be insulated to stay warm in the winter yet cool in the summer, but we need to better understand how people behave in buildings during those periods to ensure appropriate use.

And working practices can be adjusted so people can work outside periods of intense heat. People rarely want to stay at home all day, so more water fountains should be provided in public places.


3. Get better at talking about hot weather

British people famously love talking about the weather. But they still need to get better at talking about heatwaves specifically, and how they can become more resilient to them. That means things like sharing whether they’re feeling the load of the hot weather or sharing ways to stay cool.

Better communication will also help people understand who’s doing what during a hot weather event (for example, emergency services under extra strain, or bus and train drivers working in tough conditions).

4. Learn from the neighbours

Learn from other others. Mediterranean countries, for instance, are used to the hot weather and people there have adopted simple practices to help them cope with the stress: closing shutters during the hot weather, avoiding being outside or on the beach during peak heat temperatures, painting buildings white, staying hydrated and avoiding strenuous activities during hot weather. Countries in northern Europe that are just getting used to severe heatwaves could adopt these practices.

5. Invest in resilience and communication

Investment should be pro-active, rather than reactive. That means working closely with scientists to anticipate the risks from heatwaves, getting a better understanding of our vulnerabilities and the potential measures we can take. Ensure buildings (especially hospitals and care homes) and infrastructure are better prepared to withstand hot weather events and that regulation is updated to better reflect this, without which the number of heatwave-related deaths would increase.

The Conversation

Candice Howarth, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Climate Change Communication, University of Surrey.

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