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How to reboot the Northern Powerhouse


Brexit and the change of government need not mean the demise of the Northern Powerhouse project, argues Ian Wray

Does George Osborne’s departure signal the end of his Northern Powerhouse plan? In some ways it might. Civil servants face an immense task in unscrambling laws and delivering a smooth exit from the EU. There won’t be much capacity in the government machine. And if there is a recession in the offing, tax revenues will fall. 

But the new architecture for Northern governance Osborne set in motion should continue to unfold. Theresa May’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is clearly exercised about the future of all the cities and former industrial towns. ‘Industrial strategy’ is back. 

We could soon have new metropolitan mayors in the North whose combined mandate, in terms of voting populations, will be huge. It is a safe bet that these metro mayors will look for a common agenda. 

And we have Transport for the North, a new statutory body with important responsibilities. So can we reboot the Northern Powerhouse idea to make better use of the available resources? 

I’d suggest a five-point plan:

First, invest in transport, but put on hold the grand projects that have captivated some politicians. There’s no immediate need for new rail and road tunnels under the Pennines. Finish the rail electrification and upgrading between Liverpool and Leeds. There’s no need for a new ‘HS3’. Instead, create something more like the London Overground, where existing facilities are linked, upgraded and rebranded.

“Take a leaf out of the American book and support the creation of a new long-term planning body for the North”

Second, think again about the Northern science agenda. Tackle the North/South imbalance in science investment in a cost - effective way. Why not ask each Russell Group University in the North to identify its single strongest research department? Create three new professorial posts in each, with salaries at double the current level to attract the best candidates in the world (and thus the best PhD students).

Third, take a leaf out of the American book and support the creation of a long-term planning body for the North as a whole, led and largely funded by the private sector, with a small but expert team and an independent board of trustees.

Fourth, take implementation seriously for the whole North, not just the big cities. Create a new Government Office for the North, similar to the former Scottish or Welsh Offices.

Fifth, establish a Northern Investment Bank with the ability to create municipal bonds for investment in infrastructure and in fast-growing local firms, rebuilding the banking infrastructure the North has lost over 40 years. This would not be a charitable outfit. It would look for investment projects that make a real return, in dollars and cents.

Ian Wray is chair of the TCPA’s urban policy group and a visiting professor and fellow at Liverpool University



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