To bridge England’s productivity gap, the government should plan the north’s housing and transport together

Houses and bicycles in Hulme, Greater Manchester. Image: Getty.

At a meeting with the Northern Metro Mayors last year, chancellor Philip Hammond said that increasing productivity in the north of England is vital to the government’s plans to boost economic growth.

The scale of that productivity challenge is vast. According to an excellent report from the Centre for Cities, cities in the South East of England are a whopping 44 per cent more productive than cities in other parts of the country. The think tank estimates that, if all British cities were as productive as those in the South East, the national economy would be over £200bn larger. 

To boost productivity levels across Britain, regions need to be able to attract and maintain the kind of highly skilled talent which companies seek when choosing where to set up their operating base. A recent Homes for the North report found that over the past decade 300,000 highly skilled workers had left the north. Retaining this talent will require both better transport links and more quality and affordable homes. The challenge is enormous. 

To be fair to the government, the aim of its modern industrial strategy is to tackle the productivity problem over the next 30 years, ensuring that all parts of Britain can participate in and prosper in what policy wonks have termed “the fourth industrial revolution” – the labour market of the future. 

While the fruits of this industrial strategy will not be felt immediately, the government has made some other encouraging moves which could help attract investment and talent to the north. 

The decision to establish combined authorities and regional mayors to allow local councils to pool responsibilities and receive specific functions from central government means locally elected and accountable leaders, not Whitehall, will be responsible for more decisions over housing and transport investment. 

It is also good news that Transport for the North (TfN) will become a statutory body. TfN is a true pan northern organisation which can help identify the infrastructure priorities that the region wants and needs. The government’s decision to create a sub-national transport body is welcome – although it does need budget responsibilities to be truly transformational.

Research from the Mace demonstrates the opportunities that TfN could grasp to deliver real economic growth across the north. The construction consultancy found that reducing average journey times by 60 seconds across the north of England could lead to £1bn a year extra in productivity gains. 

However, when it comes to housing in the north the picture is less rosy. While the Prime Minister has clearly made housing a political and economic priority, recent moves by the Government risk undermining the housebuilding efforts across the north.

The reason for this can be traced to a set of proposed changes the government put forward before Christmas on how local councils assess future housing need. The aim was to exert pressure on local authorities to increase the number of new homes they plan to build. Unfortunately the draft methodology is flawed. It focuses on councils using a new, backwards-looking methodology based on growth assumptions which reflect today’s problems rather than tomorrow’s aspirations.


Councils are not required to plan housing to match their plans for economic growth. Instead the new numbers will only require them to plan in accordance with what is in effect historic trends. If this seems counter-intuitive, hostile to aspiration and growth, it is because it is. As a result, thousands of homes have been shaved off local benchmarks in the north. The proposed changes effectively amount to an anti-northern bias and a potential cap on economic growth across the north. Common sense must prevail.

New quality housing for rent and for purchase – hand in hand with an upgraded transport system – could act as an economic boon to the northern economy. However, infrastructure investment is currently viewed in silos. Decisions over new or upgraded road and rail routes have to be made in conjunction with an assessment of how many new homes should be built as demand increases. Quite simply, if the necessary homes do not follow, there is a danger that infrastructure investment will be squandered. 

Improving infrastructure across the north could truly unleash the Northern Powerhouse. The further devolution of powers is vital. So too is unlocking the purse strings and giving local leaders the funding they require. Finally, the north needs a sub-national coordinating body – whether under the auspices of TfN or something else – which can deliver a coherent plan to deliver the investment we need in our railways and roads, energy infrastructure, as well the hundreds of thousands of new homes the region requires over the coming decades. 

If the chancellor seizes this agenda then the government’s industrial strategy really could work in the interests of the north.

Mark Henderson is chair of Homes for the North.

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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.