Does the Northern Powerhouse need more steam?

Marc Davies, WYG

Devolution and new powers for more than just Manchester is what will drive the development of the northern economy says WYG director and ACE northern region chair Marc Davies.

Much noise is currently being made about enabling the so called Northern Powherhouse with Manchester, Sheffield and this week Leeds being granted devolved authority to varying degrees. This is creating some opportunity, but what we need is less words, more action and true powers to deliver this vision. And to deliver on its promise the North needs to get going and be more joined up.

"Perhaps there is another lesson to learn from the Romans who, in order to lessen the power of London, set up Lower Britain, the North of England as it is today, governed from York."

On Wednesday, the Budget announced a City Deal for the Leeds City Region. Although the deal was a step in the right direction it was a small step, giving council leaders and businesses greater influence over investment decisions on skills, transport, housing and support for small businesses. For Roger Marsh, Chair of the Leeds City Region LEP, the deal is “not a bad start, but the job’s not yet done”.

Speaking at the ACE Northern Region inaugural event the previous day in his capacity as chair of the LEP Green Economy Panel, WYG CEO, Paul Hamer, had expressed his expectation that devolution would be given to the North in steps rather than in one go.

For some, however, the measures announced by Chancellor George Osborne were a disappointment. In the opinion of Leeds City Council leader, Keith Wakefield, the deal is coming short of the current ambitions of people in the region, particularly the lack of devolution on transport and housing investment powers.

So how can we add steam to the Northern Powerhouse engine?

Leeds City Council chief executive, Tom Riordan made the point, during the ACE event, that: “More cylinders in the engine are needed to power economic growth and the North can deliver that”.

Groups such as ACE Northern Region are expected to play a key role in enabling the Northern Powerhouse by representing the industry that will deliver infrastructure and engaging with stakeholders and commissioning authorities to influence decision making.

They will enable greater connections to enhance the talent that is already being harnessed in the region and support the creation of, not only a more prosperous North, but a more prosperous UK. As Riordan commented, “I think it's great that we have an organisation, a network here, that can champion the talent that we have in this part of the world in terms of engineering, consultancy and the built environment.”

Jonathan Riley, specialist planning solicitor and Partner at Pinsent Masons echoed the need to get on the front foot, commenting that “during the recession, firms looked outside the region for business opportunities, now the opposite is happening, with London firms expanding to the North.”

Connectivity, of course, is key, and infrastructure within the region is at the heart of this. Leeds station is the second busiest in the UK, handling 100,000 people every day, but the routes inter-region are painfully slow. And new rail infrastructure alone won’t solve the problem: comprehensive multi-modal transport solutions are needed.

Connectivity also means administrative connectivity, across the North. There is certainly a will to collaborate between the principal city regions, but the fact that there are three separate city deals shows that there is much more that can be done to join up.

But being organised and co-ordinated will only get so far. This opportunity can only be realised with the right level of devolution and fiscal autonomy.

Perhaps there is another lesson to learn from the Romans who, in order to lessen the power of London, set up Lower Britain, the North of England as it is today, governed from York.