Northern Powerhouse : Quick Wins!
29 July, 2016
So far the Northern Powerhouse is more concept than reality. It has produced plans about plans as far as the North’s transport infrastructure is concerned and has provided some devolved funding for growth and other projects. The concept has its detractors who claim that it is more smoke and mirrors than actual tangible help for northern economies. They may have a point. Much of the improvements that supporters of the Northern Powerhouse like to talk up, for example rail improvements in the north west, were already happening before the concept was even thought about. Then there is the point that the delegated funding in no way makes up for local authority funding lost due to austerity cuts. Some of the plans dreamed up by supporters of the concept may be fine in theory, such as HS3, the rail link across the Pennines, and a road tunnel between Sheffield and Manchester, but these projects are grandiose, hugely expensive and, therefore, may never actually be approved. In the meantime, the transport system creaks towards breaking point and northern economies receive even less support than they might have received had the concept not come about at all.
It need not be like this. Grand strategies are fine but, for the concept to have any chance of success, we need results that we can see now. If the rail network is at capacity at peak periods, then simply buy more rolling stock now, as an emergency procurement. HS3 won’t come about for years. Yes, electrification projects would be great and would solve many problems so start work on them now but again these will not solve problems over night. Even the new rail franchises do not envisage significant improvements for three years or more. Most rail commuter capacity issues between northern towns and cities can simply be solved by adding coaches to existing trains. There are few significant infrastructure issues to be resolved, such as platforms that would be too short for the longer trains and most of these can probably be catered for by workarounds. Not all rail lines will be electrified so the new trains could simply be cascaded to the residual network once electrification takes place. The trains on these lines are already pretty clapped out anyway. How difficult would it be to relieve this kind of congestion in a few months? Surely this would be a quick win for the Northern Powerhouse.
Another issue is that there is a drastic shortage of public sector housing in Yorkshire. The housing associations say that they could leverage considerable amounts of private sector finance if they just received a small amount of government support. This is not surprising as there is so much cash out there sloshing around looking for some sort of return that projects such as public sector housing with a guaranteed income stream would look like manna from heaven. 20,000 public sector homes built in Yorkshire over five years would have little impact on the wider property market but it would give a boost to the construction industry in potentially lean times and would help people who might otherwise not be able to afford a home of their own. This, in turn, could have a positive impact on the retail sector.
These are just a couple of examples where some “pump priming” finance provided by those responsible for the Northern Powerhouse initiative could make a real difference to people’s lives at little cost to the public purse. There must be hundreds of other opportunities so let’s look for more “quick wins” whilst looking at larger projects that could be delivered in the longer term.
Whilst we are on the topic, some large scale projects can only be delivered by a regional authority. The likes of the city regions have trouble delivering their own internal transport systems so they simply don’t have the resources to deliver regional rail and road networks, let alone an integrated transport strategy which has to include air and sea transport. Where are the calls from the Northern Powerhouse for a further northern regional airport? Do we really need to increase airport capacity in the South East? The only reason I use Heathrow and Gatwick is because there is no northern alternative. A Yorkshire regional airport is badly needed. The Yorkshire road network is at capacity in many areas, yet there does not appear to be any strategy for tackling this problem. Buildings are going up which may have to come down in a few years as they are placed at obvious future road junctions or where roads will require widening. Sooner or later the conurbations and even some of the larger individual towns and cities will require their own fully integrated rapid transit systems. Where the resources are supposed to come from to provide these is anybody’s guess but they certainly won’t come from existing city devolution deals. Only a Yorkshire regional government could tackle projects on this scale. So to conclude, I would say let’s make the Northern Powerhouse a reality, driven by Yorkshire.