Thursday, 14 July 2016

'Northern Powerhouse’ progress: Slower than the Southport to Manchester train?

A guest post from Lauren Keith on the so called Northern Power House

The Northern Powerhouse is fast becoming a political cliché. The 8 Lib Dem MP’s (led by Southport’s own MP John Pugh) have recently published a report claiming that the initiative is in danger of becoming little more than smoke and mirrors.

It’s about time that there was a thorough analysis of what the Northern Powerhouse actually means and what it has really achieved.

The report argues that rather than being a comprehensive and new plan bringing additional funding to the North it is in fact just semantics. The authors reflect that while the city devolution deals may seem like large sums of money, when central government cuts are taken into account Northern cities were actually still left at a loss.  In Liverpool the figure of £30 million a year is totally negated when the 43% cut in local authority budgets is taken into account. They are also sceptical about the power that the newly created city regions actually have, arguing that working with UKTI to boost trade and powers for new skills provisions are merely programmes rather than substantive power. 
The other powerful point made is that the transport programmes that have been implemented or are in planning so far, tend to focus on the connections between the North and London. This ignores the connections between Northern cities and crucially between Northern cities and the wider region.
It’s pretty apparent that the Northern Powerhouse idea is very much focused around the cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield rather than the wider region. A recent report by think tank IPPR North looked at the status of small and medium sized towns and cities in the Northern Powerhouse framework. Crucially, their research found that connectivity is more important than size or concentration when it comes to unlocking economic success and productivity. One of the paper’s policy recommendations is for Transport for the North to ensure that its future strategy development takes account of the ‘complexity of the North’s urban ecosystem.’  In other words, recognising that the North isn’t just two cities but a web of smaller towns and cities!

The Northern Powerhouse concept is symptomatic of the general approach by Government in response to a ‘problem’. Thinking up a new strategy, appointing taskforces or ‘Tsars’ and creating ‘zones’ seems to be currently in vogue.  The danger of this is paralysis through over analysis and a failure sometimes to see the glaringly obvious.

Investing in critical infrastructure, improving broadband and rail and road connections and increasing education and training provision and opportunities are surely the key basics for economic success.
The first direct air link to China has just been launched from Manchester yet at the same time that the Manchester Airport service from Southport is apparently being reviewed. Surely the equation for the social and economic success of a town or city is diversity of population and connections to other cities and hubs. There is the tangible ease of access to other regional businesses that this connectivity brings, but there is also the vibrancy that comes with this. Better transport links means that people can more easily commute to work and will be more likely to live in smaller towns like Southport. In Southport’s case, this would inevitably mean that retail, leisure and other offerings will grow to cater for a more mixed population as the young professional demographic increases.

There is no one size fits all policy to unlocking prosperity. Southport, for example, is an excellent place for running with several parks and a beautiful sea-front. The annual half-marathon is a great initiative that will attract visitors to the area. Similarly, the town is also synonymous with golf as a result of the Open at Birkdale. Lord Street, the apparent inspiration for the Parisian boulevards, is the perfect setting for a strong retail and leisure offering.  Each town and city has its own strengths and weaknesses and it is up to local leaders to capitalise on these and be allowed the freedom and voice to do so.

Only when towns like Southport are able to shape their own destiny rather than being seen as under the umbrella of a larger city will the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ really be harnessed.