More than a year ago, ConservativeHome featured a Deep End post about the cities of Northern England:
“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?”
In describing these cities as “a string of pearls,” the argument was that to make the most of their economic potential we need to thread them together.
“…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.”
“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.”
How encouraging, then, to read the speech that George Osborne gave yesterday in Manchester:
“These cities, in a belt that runs from Liverpool to Hull all have strengths individually – but on a global scale they are also quite small. Manchester’s population is 2.6 million. Leeds’ and West Yorkshire’s is 1.8 million.
“But together our northern cities can be more than the sum of their parts.
“The last census found that the average commute of someone who travels into London from outside is 40 miles. If you make a circle of the same distance, and centre it here on Manchester, you’d have a catchment area that takes in Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire, and contains ten million people – more than Tokyo, New York or London. An area containing nearly two million graduates. A huge pool of talent.”
Furthermore, the Chancellor understands that infrastructure improvements are of vital importance:
“…today the transport network in the north is simply not fit for purpose – and certainly not good enough, if we want our cities to pool their strengths… Manchester and Sheffield are just 38 miles apart – yet it takes over 1 hour 20 minutes to travel by car. In that time you can get from Southampton to Oxford, which is twice the distance… it’s quicker to travel the 283 miles from London to Paris by train than it is to travel less than half that distance between Liverpool and Hull… bus trips in the capital are up a third over the last ten years, but down by 7% in the northern cities…”
He even went so far as to raise the idea of ‘HS3’ – a high speed railway line to provide a rapid east-west connection across the region.
It was a visionary speech and well worth reading in full.
However, what we now need to see are some signs of genuine commitment.
Firstly, the Government must go further in decentralising decision-making powers to each city. It was good to hear the Chancellor speaking out in favour of elected mayors. This must be worked up into a clear and compelling policy – as opposed to the half-baked scheme that was rejected by most of our cities in 2012.
Secondly, if the Chancellor truly wants to make his vision real then he must ensure that the next reshuffle puts the right people in powerful positions of authority. Reshaping England’s political and economic geography won’t happen unless the champions of the North (and of decentralisation generally) are driving the Government’s agenda.
Finally, if the Government is serious about improving the east-west transport connections across the Northern cities then this should be a higher spending priority than HS2, which isn’t even scheduled to reach the North until 2032. In other words, let’s ignore arithmetical convention and build HS3 before HS2.
Perhaps we’ll find that in creating a properly functioning “Northern Powerhouse” (to quote the Chancellor), we can ease up on the infrastructure schemes currently spilling out of the over-heated powerhouse in the South.