The Northern Powerhouse strategy was launched nearly two years ago. Oliver Holbrook, Business Development Executive at Studio North takes a look at what the Powerhouse can bring not only to Manchester but the wider North.
Back in 2014 the positivity and energy that greeted the announcement by Osborne was soon met with cautionary warnings. These ranged from claims that investment packages weren’t great enough to complaints that new high-speed lines would be too little too late. There were suspicions that spending would be centred on relatively prosperous areas by local standards, ignoring outlying towns and settlements with some of the highest areas of poverty and unemployment nationally. Fundamentally, as many highlighted, the North was still a net recipient of government expenditure, and some felt this was simply slight of hand to disguise Westminster austerity policies.
Since then numerous events, talks and discussion forums have been created to debate the concept and progress. Most recently Discuss Manchester and Downtown in Business events re-focused attention on the progress of the Northern Powerhouse. Has the debate moved on? Is there any progress and more importantly a timeline for this mammoth change to the Northern economy?
Well, the debate broadly remains where it was then. The scepticism centres around the same topics with the added concerns of shifting timescales and a perceived lack of progress.
At Studio North we were then, and remain now, firmly behind the Northern Powerhouse. Basing ourselves in Ancoats, described by renowned Architectural Historian Nikolaus Pevsner as the world’s first industrial suburb, we are well placed to see the Northern Powerhouse’s parallels to an earlier age of Northern Industrial prosperity. If steam, cotton, coal and iron were the drivers of that age, then the digital economy, high-speed electric rail, graphene and the media, artistic and cultural economies would be the hallmarks of this age.
We support greater autonomy for our cities and other city regions and feel joined-up thinking on local government spending can only be a good thing. Local control of training and education budgets will allow Greater Manchester to target spending where it skills are needed locally. Aligned social care and health budgets will drive greater efficiencies and improve care. Long term, strategic thinking on housing will allow better housing to be built when and where it is needed.
Better transport links too can only be a good thing. With Transport for North (TfN) there is finally a body able to serve transport needs as they exist, not hampered by arbitrary authority boundaries that just don’t match todays patterns of travel for commuters, students and evening and weekend leisure passengers.
The growth of Media City, the BBC’s movement of many departments to Salford as well as Sainsbury Digital’s recent announcement of over 150 new digital jobs in Manchester would probably not have happened without recent improvements to the West Coast mainline that reduced Manchester to London train times down to around two hours.
The planned HS2 link will bring huge benefits to the North, not just in terms of journey times, which naysayers have highlighted as only offering marginal reductions, but in terms of massively needed, huge increases in overall capacity.
HS3 improvements will allow better connectivity between cities in the North allowing business to better access talent, skills and opportunities across the region. The potential for Manchester Airport and the Manchester Business Park to prosper and continue to support the region can only be fully realised with the planned improvements to rail and road links to the area.
Complaints regarding timescales and progress are naive, given the scale and scope of the planned transportation improvements. With strategic improvements we need to anticipate strategic timescales and not enough time has passed to comment on progress at this point.
Some concerns are valid and it is important that the Northern Powerhouse brand should not blind us to the areas that still need better leadership, accountability and ultimately still require central government funding.
The ability for Manchester to be as prosperous, confident and remain a growth city, rests upon the wider fortunes of the North and alongside our relationship, communication and movement with the whole of the North. Just like the last Northern Powerhouse, we want to be the epicentre of a prosperous North, not merely an economic outlier.
Yes, it is important that the needs of our outer boroughs, smaller towns and less economically sound regions are kept front of mind. The North East as a whole needs far more consideration for example. We need accountability and strong leadership from our local politicians. We need the investment in public transport infrastructure to continue. We need public spending to increase for the many areas that suffer high unemployment and deprivation.
What we need to do is embrace the Northern Powerhouse to make these improvements a reality. We need our time to shine again and we cannot let political point scoring and disproportionate focus on the negatives jeopardise the opportunity and potential this project has.
We’ve produced a number of pieces which demonstrate the power of the North – click here to watch our film for First Transpennine Express – It Started in the North