George Osborne was in New York this week apparently. However, his ghost haunted the UK Northern Powerhouse (NP) conference with some suggesting that without him as Chancellor the NP project was doomed.
Well the formidable Lord Kerslake had the answer to that as he challenged business and local politicians to step forward to head up the project. The problem is that there is nothing tangible to head up. Transport for The North is the only statutory body covering the North of England. Progress on skills, growth, culture and productivity all depend on business and councils getting together on an ad hoc basis. We need a Council of the North to decide priorities and focus media attention. The NP also needs to get some achievements under its belt. Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester Council, rejected a suggestion of a big public relations drive to get people talking about the NP. By your deeds will ye know them, is a good maxim.
That said the conference has become the annual event where you have a real sense of the northern family getting together with business getting done in the exhibition hall. Although women were scarce on the speaker panels, two stood out. Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds, insisted that if we are to improve the skills base improvement needs to start in the primary school. The government have only given devolved powers after 16 so far. She also said that NP sometimes had too great an emphasis on transport. Housing and health mattered too.
Fiesty Kate Willard from Stobart also had skills in her sights, calling for the abolition of the Skills Funding Agency. She should be the next chair of the Liverpool Local Enterprise Partnership.
The conference saw the last appearance of Sir Howard Bernstein as Chief Executive of Manchester Council although when I used the word “farewell” to him, he assured me he would still be around. Watch this space. His political colleague all these years Sir Richard Leese was encouraged by the publication of the Northern Economic Review as a sign of NP progress but claimed work on the northern hub and trans Pennine rail links “were stuck”.
There were expressions of frustration throughout the two days at the long timescales for infrastructure projects. It is likely to be 2025 before new trans Pennine links will be fully operational. In the meantime however we won’t have to put up with the pacers, Arriva had good news on new rolling stock.
A number of people I spoke to expressed anxiety that NP was still too Manchester focused. Furness Enterprises told me that Barrow’s submarine contracts would be adding more GVA to the north’s economy than some cities. One Leeds businessman has begun a campaign to take a whole new look at the trans Pennine bottleneck. Lance Christie wants the M65 extended from Colne to East Leeds improving links to Leeds Bradford airport and opening a new gateway to the North West from the North East.
The effects of Brexit on the NP was on everyone’s minds with Ged Fitzgerald, the Chief Executive of Liverpool reflecting the current uncertainty. He said the vote was already having an adverse impact on the city’s universities. On the other hand, the port was now facing the right way for global trade as it had in the days of empire before the EU interlude.
Andrew Percy, the new NP Minister, convinced the conference that Theresa May was behind the Northern Powerhouse and claimed the concept was being recognised from Canada to China.
Spades in the ground might to be some way off, but as delegates left at least they could see the Ordsall Curve bridge which had been put in place while the conference was on to link Victoria and Piccadilly stations.
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