THINK OF ‘NORTHERN POWERHOUSES’ and, for some, for some, smoke-belching chimney stacks may still come to mind. It’s an outdated image that Chancellor George Osborne wants to replace for good. His idea of a Northern Powerhouse is a region with renewed transport links attracting global investment, enabling a 21st century economy to flourish. If you live in northern England and feel you don’t get a say at Westminster, perhaps now is your moment.
Osborne first introduced the idea in June 2014, noting that the lack of physical and economic connectivity in the North was an impediment to growth. In a speech, made appropriately at the Power Hall in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, Osborne highlighted some successes, with investment from Hitachi, Nissan and Rolls-Royce in the North East, Siemens in Hull and East Yorkshire, and a new deep-water port in Liverpool, but admitted: “The cities of the North are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more.”
Osborne’s big fix is to bring these cities together, giving them the critical mass to rival London. The average capital commute is 40 miles, and as Osborne noted: “If you make a circle of the same distance, and centre it 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.”
The grand plan is to rival areas like the Rhine-Ruhr in Germany, where 23 million people live, mainly in five large cities, including Dusseldorf and Dortmund, plus ten others, all well connected by air, autobahn and fast trains.
Osborne is convinced transport is the most crucial element to his plan. He points out the irony that, in the area which virtually invented modern transport, it still takes longer to get from Liverpool to Hull by train than from London to Paris. He plans to remedy this and ensure that “travelling between cities feels like travelling within one big city”.
To this end, the government has set up Transport for the North (TFN). A crucial element of its ‘One Voice for the North’ masterplan is High Speed 2 (High Speed 2: A proposed high-speed railway line linking London with the Midlands, the North of England and eventually the central belt of Scotland. It is being developed by High Speed Two Ltd, a comp... in the Home Counties, but there may also be difficulties to overcome in the North: ending the line in Manchester means building a 7.5-mile tunnel; while stops in Sheffield and East Midlands will be at parkway stations, not city centres.
Moreover, all this will take at least the next decade, but meanwhile, Osborne wants stakeholders to “start thinking” about a Manchester-Leeds HS rail link using existing infrastructure. The problem with east-west road and rail links is that the Pennines get in the way, and the government has only pledged to “explore” the feasibility of tunnelling under them.
Civic leaders last year lobbied for a Eurostar-style service on the Trans Pennine railway, with tunnelling raising the average speed on the Manchester-Leeds-Sheffield link from the current 44mph to well over 100mph. The price tag, including electrification, is put at more than £5 billion, a huge sum, but as any northern politician will readily point out, a third of what London’s Crossrail is costing.
All this is still up in the air, but firm proposals are being worked on at TFN, which becomes a statutory body in 2017. Its chief executive, David Brown, will oversee a strategy document to be published in March. “Our job is to explain what infrastructure and investment is required,” he explains. He admits that in the past “we have moved from one scheme to another”, but insists the chancellor is earnest in his intentions, citing the £15 billion proposed budget. “He’s given us a budget, appointed me and turned us into a statutory body. It seems a firm commitment considering we were only announced in July.”
High Speed 2: A proposed high-speed railway line linking London with the Midlands, the North of England and eventually the central belt of Scotland. It is being developed by High Speed Two Ltd, a comp... might be Osborne’s flagship, but TFN must also convince of the need for more mundane projects. Brown admits key motorway and rail links are operating “almost at their limit”. A quick fix for the railways will be to have more and newer trains, and longer platforms to enable more carriages, but Brown says: “You can’t keep running more trains on existing Victorian infrastructure.” He is clearly thinking big and, providing another spending review doesn’t scupper his ideas, something impressive might just materialise.
The region may be lacking when it comes to good rail links, but One North – a strategic proposition for transport in the North, launched by the chancellor in 2014, whose work TFN is building on – recognises its strengths when it comes to airports, saying it is “well provided”. It adds, however, that there are issues with access to some, noting that a rail or light rail connection to Leeds/Bradford “needs to be turned into a fully realised project”.
Manchester airport, which attracts 23 million passengers, is building its network of flights to key business destinations, but One North says access needs to be easier from outside the North West. It adds: “The reason…is to help create the demand for more direct flights and drive Manchester airport up the international league table so that it increasingly meets the needs of northern businesses without the need to interchange at another European hub.”
Ken O’Toole, the airport’s managing director, naturally agrees, adding: “I believe there are around a further 25 long-haul routes which could be commercially viable from Manchester. These include more American destinations, India and other parts of the Far East, such as Bangkok.”
Despite Newcastle airport’s success in securing links to the US and Dubai, Manchester is the government’s chosen Northern hub airport. The problem, however, with growing Manchester is that the M56 is close to capacity and rail links to the airport are relatively poor, with even Liverpool being more than an hour away. If the airport wishes to grow, its access will have to improve.
Something will need to be done, as Manchester has ambitions to grow to 55 million passengers a year via £1 billion of investment that will see Terminal 2 taking over from Terminal, 1 which will be demolished. One key part of this plan is Airport City, an £800 million enterprise zone, part-funded by the Beijing Construction Engineering Group. Underlining this are two key parts of a £130 million ‘China cluster’, named Wuhan Square and Shenzhen Gardens. It is hoped that they will attract ‘advanced manufacturing’ aviation and nuclear industries.
Chinese president Xi Jinping gave the project his blessing in October, while announcing the launch of flights from Manchester to Beijing from Hainan Airlines next June. “As other international companies see the benefit of the Airport City location, we are sure it will have a symbiotic relationship with route development,” said O’Toole.
Osborne hopes this will be the anchor for investment throughout the region. In September, he was in Chengdu brandishing his ‘Northern Pitchbook’, a catalogue of 20 investment opportunities worth £24 billion. These included a 40-mile ‘Atlantic Gateway’ corridor of opportunity, linking Liverpool and Manchester, and redeveloping the former Astrazeneca site at Alderley Park into a bioscience hub.
TFN’s Brown is keen to point out that it won’t all go Manchester’s way. “There are other airports, and they play a role for business, so we have to make sure we have a proportionate investment plan for them,” he says, adding that “there’s no doubt Manchester is the hub”.
There’s an acceptance of this over at Newcastle airport and Graeme Mason, its planning and corporate affairs director, says he’s “very supportive” of the Northern Powerhouse. He adds, however: “From a transport point of view, there needs to be a recognition that the North East is further away from the main Liverpool- Manchester-Leeds corridor.”
Newcastle and Manchester airports’ catchments (as measured by 90 minutes’ travelling time) do not overlap, so there is scope for Newcastle to grow. It is already well connected to key hubs, but Mason has ambitions to make the seasonal New York route year-round and to persuade Emirates to fly double daily. Meanwhile, more mundane concerns include upgrading the Metro link and improving parts of the A1.
“While I think the report next March will be very important, it’s not necessarily the thing that will trigger some of the improvements we’re hoping for,” he says.
There is also a job to do with convincing the public. A Com Res poll found that 44 per cent of those in the North had never heard of the Northern Powerhouse, but Brown believes there is a simple way to overcome this. “You turn it into tangibles – you don’t always have to explain a concept if people can see the results.”
Fancy Chinese business parks might be one thing, but what might swing it for the day-to-day traveller (business or otherwise) will probably be getting a seat on a new train that manages to do more than crawl along. Until firm proposals are announced, it’s a question of travelling in hope, rather than expectation.