America has the ‘BosWash corridor’ (Boston through to Washington), Germany has the Ruhr valley, Japan has Tokyo-Yokohama. England, of course, has Greater London, but we also have the ‘Northern conurbation’ – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and all the places in between: one of the greatest concentrations of humanity anywhere in the world.
So why don’t we see the core cities of the North as the enormous economic asset that they are? The key problem is the narrative – and, to an extent, the reality – of post-industrial decline. We are told the economic rationale for the rise of the Northern conurbation no longer applies and thus its component communities must make do as best they can, burdened by a history and geography that no longer works to their advantage.
Fortunately, this is nonsense. In every region in every country, industries come and go – but what really counts is their ability to adapt and innovate.
In this respect, cities – whose whole purpose is to facilitate the exchange of ideas – are ideally placed to keep pace with the future. The Northern conurbation is more than a city – it is a constellation of cities, a dense but diverse network of markets, cultures and environments in which enterprise should thrive.
Of course, as with any network, properly functioning links are all important. Improving those links is the purpose of an under-reported, but highly significant, piece of infrastructure investment called the Northern Hub – described here in an article for the Economist:
- “It consists of a series of schemes aimed at improving railway travel around Manchester, the north of England’s most successful city… in providing the missing link in a loop between Piccadilly and Victoria, the main stations, it completes a direct line through the city that connects the airport in the south with suburbs to the north. New platforms will be built at Piccadilly and at the airport. Capacity will also be added elsewhere to cut journey times to cities such as Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle.”
While the London-based political and media establishments obsess over the radial links that connect the capital to the rest of the country, it is important not forget the infrastructure that runs along the east-west axis of the Northern conurbation:
- “Whereas HS2, Britain’s planned high-speed rail line, will connect the north of England to the south, the Northern Hub cements lateral links between northern cities. Many of them need attention. Research by the London School of Economics found that around 40% less commuting journeys are made between Leeds and Manchester, the north’s burgeoning commercial centres, than their proximity and status would imply. Integrate them more closely, as the Northern Hub will… and the labour pool ought to grow, making it easier to do business.”
Compared to HS2 or a new London airport, the cost of such improvements – around £600 million for the Northern Hub – is small. One wonders, therefore, why they haven’t already happened. It speaks of a colossal failure of imagination, not to mention the over-centralisation of our decision-making power structures,.
In particular, one should ask why the last Labour government – which pumped billions into inflating public sector pay rolls in Northern cities – did so little to build the infrastructure that would have provided a lasting boost to the job-creating potential of the private sector.