You’ve heard of the Northern Powerhouse but do you know what it really is? And will it have any impact in Cumbria?
Julian Whittle, Cumbria Chamber’s business engagement manager, attended a one-day conference in Wakefield, A Powerhouse for All the North, which aimed to explore ways of spreading the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse beyond major cities such as Manchester and Leeds. This is his report.
If you want the official definition of the Northern Powerhouse, here it is, lifted from the Government’s Northern Powerhouse web site:
‘The Northern Powerhouse is our ambition to bring together the great cities, towns and rural communities of the North of England and Wales to become a powerhouse for our economy. We will achieve this with modern transport links, a revolutionary new style of governance and increased investment.’
In essence then, an attempt to grow the North’s economy by improving transport links, some judicious (but probably limited) investment, and devolution deals of the sort already secured by Manchester and Liverpool, which will see those cities elect their first directly-elected mayors this May.
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, added a little colour to this prosaic description when he addressed Cumbria Chamber of Commerce’s recent partners’ dinner with South Lakeland Council in Kendal.
He likened the north of England to the Randstad, a densely populated and economically dynamic area of Holland, which includes the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague and many smaller towns.
The main difference being that, while the cities of the Randstad are connected by excellent transport links, those in the north of England are not. East-west communications are especially poor.
“The cities of the north of England are very close together but they are not very well connected. Connect them together and you have a single labour market and the critical mass to balance London.”
Sir Richard said: “The cities of the north of England are very close together but they are not very well connected. Connect them together and you have a single labour market and the critical mass to balance London.”
His point was illustrated by my train journey from Carlisle to Wakefield for the Powerhouse for All the North conference. It involved three trains and took nearly four hours including two hours on a bone-shaking Pacer between
Lancaster and Leeds. Getting to London, although twice as far, would have been quicker and infinitely more comfortable.
The event was organised by the Industrial Communities Alliance, an all-party association campaigning on behalf of local authorities in the industrial areas of England, Scotland and Wales.
One of the opening speakers, Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam University, challenged the central orthodoxy of the Northern Powerhouse: that it is primarily about the so-called ‘core cities’ of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle.
He argued that these five cities contain only 20 per cent of the North’s population and, here’s the clincher, economic growth outside the core cities has been faster than it has within them.
Industrial towns such as Carlisle, Barrow, Whitehaven and Workington have the advantage of an abundant supply of development land and lower costs, so are obvious places to target investment.
What the core cities have been good at, he argues, is self-promotion. They peddled the line that big cities drive growth, and the Government swallowed it. It just doesn’t happen to be true.
This view was echoed by other speakers, including Sir Stephen Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, and Mike Palin, chief executive of St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council.
Jim McMahon MP, the Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government, highlighted a weakness in the way government allocates expenditure for infrastructure projects, particularly transport.
Because spending decisions are based on a cost-benefit analysis, money gravitates to the prosperous South East where investment brings the biggest uplift in GVA, the Government’s preferred measure of economic output.
Spending the money in poorer areas of the North, he argued, would ultimately be more beneficial by helping to rebalance the economy.
As a Conservative in a meeting dominated by Labour politicians, Andrew Percy MP, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, had a rough ride.
But he made a robust defence of the initiative and, when questioned by Allerdale Council’s Alan Smith about the substantial rejection of Cumbria LEP’s recent Growth Deal bid, he said the bid had been “very ambitious”.
What the conference failed to provide was a vision of how communities outside the five core cities might benefit from the Northern Powerhouse.
The nearest we came was a presentation from the newly-appointed chief executive of Cumbria County Council, Katherine Fairclough. She painted an upbeat picture of the county on the cusp of £25bn of inward investment.
But she argued that Cumbria needed to have clarity on what it wants from government to remove obstacles to realising its potential – an adequate supply of affordable housing, measures to boost skills and transport improvements.
That has to be the way forward. Ministers are unlikely to respond to a begging bowl demanding more government intervention.
But they may be persuaded by a well-constructed business case that justifies investment as the key to unlocking economic growth.
And surely Cumbria can argue that, if it is to host major infrastructure projects of strategic national importance – the likes of the Moorside nuclear power station and a repository for nuclear waste – then it can justifiably demand a ‘dividend’ in the form of investment in infrastructure.
Our concern at Cumbria Chamber is that the clock is ticking on these projects but there has been no public debate on what Cumbria’s ask should be.© Cumbria Chamber of Commerce