Jessica Bowles, director of strategic partnerships and impact at Bruntwood, discusses the future of Northern Powerhouse Rail.
When Rishi Sunak announced the cancellation of the 14-year long HS2 project at the Conservative Party Conference in October, the PM stated that the money would be put to use on other key infrastructure improvements.
The North has faced prolonged uncertainty around these promised enhancements, with stop-start decisions impacting long-term decision making and stifling growth potential.
Unfortunately we do now have some certainty: HS2 in its current form will not go ahead.
As disappointing as this is, we now need to see what these commitments look like in detail and if they meet the tests for what is needed to ensure the North’s future success.
Rerouting the journey
Earlier this month, the King delivered his first speech as monarch, which confirmed that routes earmarked for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) would be saved. This was welcome relief to many following the HS2 cancellation, with the NPR project designed to increase capacity and resilience across the network.
The Northern Powerhouse was based on coalescing the strength of the North’s biggest cities to compete on a global stage, but this is only possible with better links. Driving growth across the UK relies on creating ecosystems of thriving communities where people have the opportunities to live affordably, access employment and move freely. With HS2 now off the table in its current form and at the current time, focus must be placed on moving NPR forward at pace to support and stimulate these clusters, with cohesive infrastructure critical to this.
To help facilitate this, local government must be given devolved powers and spending capabilities to move away from the stop-start decisions that have been hampering the project thus far and get NPR back on track. Short-term political thinking has for too long stifled progress.
There also needs to be integrated, cross-party thinking that removes barriers to development. Fiscal rules should be reformed to take more account of long-term economic development?and there should be a wider range of funding options to get projects off the ground.
Central to this will be creating a framework that will give more statutory responsibility to the National Infrastructure Commission so that, akin to the OBR, its role can be strengthened and it can provide independent and authoritative analysis of the UK's infrastructure requirements and plans. It can also hold the Government accountable through its evaluation of performance against targets for infrastructure investment.
Mind the economic gap
The potential repercussions of not moving forward with these plans are grave. Connectivity provides opportunity and without this we risk undermining our standing on the world stage and our ability to attract and retain talent long-term.
Investors, both internationally and domestically, need certainty if they are to make long-term investment decisions, and arguably without some of the NPR upgrades that have been tabled many will not see the North as a viable place to invest.
The improvement of the line between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport, for example, is crucial to reassuring investors that they will be able to do business internationally out of the North of England.
Without this inward investment, the knock-on effect on skills and productivity is huge. Enabling graduates to stay and live in, for example, Liverpool but work in Manchester or Leeds would create huge advantages for the North as a whole. Similarly, allowing people in places like Bradford and other large but poorly connected towns to commute instantly expands prospective employers' talent pools.
And looking at emerging sectors where demand for talent outstrips supply, like many roles in digital and tech, this retention of talent would give assurances to big employers that it is worth having a base in the region.
Investment Zones have also been widely lauded by the business community as a step in the right direction to create opportunities for long-term employment growth in the regions. However, these again cannot succeed without an integrated and reliable transport system to connect them to nearby talent pools, other businesses, and education institutions.
With an election looming, the Government needs to reassure voters across the country that they are serious about levelling up and creating equal opportunities. Making clear budgetary commitments that allow Northern Powerhouse Rail to move forward at pace will help ensure longer-term buy-in while also allowing us to confidently showcase the opportunity of the North on a global scale and unlock the true potential of our regional towns and cities.
Jessica Bowles is director of strategic partnerships and impact at Bruntwood.