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.