At just under three hours, the 125-mile rail journey between Liverpool and Hull is tortuously slow. In many ways, it symbolises the progress of the Northern Powerhouse, launched five years ago by ex-chancellor George Osborne but still hovering near the platform rather than moving forward at any speed.
Local government and business leaders are proposing a new £39bn rail network across the Pennines that would roughly halve the journey time between Liverpool and Hull. It would also allow faster travel between other northern cities, better links with Manchester Airport and create hubs for new communities.
But the Government has yet to give a firm yes to Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), which in any case will take until the mid-2030s to complete. In the meantime, there is a feeling that something big needs to happen – something that makes people sit up and take notice.
‘I think the Government has gone cold on the Northern Powerhouse,’ says Steve Rotheram, mayor of Liverpool City Region, which is receiving £300m to link Liverpool to HS2 (and therefore potentially NPR) after the city was initially missed off.
Major change is needed, says Rotheram, to signal that the Government is still behind the concept of a powerhouse. ‘It would be totemic if the Government said we are doing this because of 16 million people speaking with one voice and local authorities working together.’
In Manchester, council leader Sir Richard Leese notes some operators are providing newer trains and more regular services. But the promised ‘northern hub’ linking rail routes around Greater Manchester is yet to fully materialise. ‘All the long-term stuff is going well but there is a failure to deliver in the short term,’ he says.
Cllr Leese does not believe ministers have lost interest in the Northern Powerhouse but is waiting for evidence that the Treasury sees it as a priority in the same way as before Osborne left Government in 2016.
From this year, Greater Manchester is taking charge of adult skills funding. A study in March for the combined authority described education and training locally as fragmented. ‘It’s not coherent or geared up to our economy,’ says Cllr Leese.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, chaired by Osborne, published a blueprint for the future of the Powerhouse in February. Among other things, this called for northern schools to receive an extra £5bn over the next five years. Children in the North achieve one GCSE grade below the UK average, according to NPP research.
It wants the money to go to schools with disadvantaged children who may not qualify for the pupil premium, distributed by a new pan-northern schools board that would also oversee academies. The comprehensive spending review, due later this year, seems critical to ambitions.
Henri Murison, director of the NPP, says Government appears less focussed on the Powerhouse than before but stresses not everything depends on public money. ‘There’s a huge role for local government and mayoral combined authorities, but they cannot do this alone,’ he says. ‘It requires private sector investment too.’
In November, an analysis by the IPPR showed that, while spending on transport in the North rose by £146 per head between 2013/14 and 2016/17, transport spending in London rose by £326 per head and remains roughly twice as high.
Judith Blake, council leader in Leeds, says the Powerhouse has raised confidence and given people a ‘sense of place’, but also a sense of injustice. ‘There has been a woeful lack of investment in the North over many generations,’ she says.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government argues the disparity is closing, with planned spending on transport in northern regions due to reach £248 per head over the three years to 2020/21, compared to £236 in the rest of England.
Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry says it will take time to rectify historic under-investment in northern transport but believes that the Powerhouse has made ‘significant progress’.
Other achievements, he says, include a £70m schools strategy (running to 2020), plus the creation of four metro mayors. Once a fifth mayor is elected in North Tyne on May 2, 47% of people in the North will gain from devolution deals worth a total of £3.4bn.
And Berry supports the NPP’s call for the entire north of England to be covered by combined authorities, even where no devolution deal is agreed. ‘You won’t find me opposing anything that means me saying to Government you have to redouble your commitment to the North,’ he says.
Firm proposals for creating Northern Powerhouse Rail were put forward in February by Transport for the North, a sub-national body that oversees regional transport. ‘Until there is a business case, it’s hard for any Government to make a commitment,’ adds Berry.
There are indications that the Northern Powerhouse brand may be helping attract business. According to the MHCLG, foreign investment in the North has roughly doubled since 2010, whereas elsewhere it remained the same. Last year, a delegation of northern leaders visited China to flag up opportunities.
Daren Hale, deputy leader in Hull, says the prospect of better transport played some part in a decision by pharmaceutical firm Reckitt Benckiser to invest further in the city. He is excited by the prospect of faster rail, which could make it feasible to commute between Leeds and Hull.
Yet while this would be a ‘game changer’ for the local economy, Hale is concerned that people won’t notice much difference in public services for some time. ‘There needs to be some “well” factor,’ he says.
Further north in cities such as Sunderland, there is a feeling that not only has the political will behind the Powerhouse disappeared, but it has become too focussed on cities along the M62 – notably Manchester where regional mayor Andy Burnham has a higher profile than other northern leaders.
Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland Council, would like to see NPR extended to Edinburgh, along with improvements to the east coast mainline. ‘The Northern Powerhouse has to look at the north in its entirety,’ he says. ‘Andy Burnham is doing a great job in Greater Manchester, but he is sucking the oxygen out of the room.’
Judith Blake sees the Powerhouse as ‘very much a work in progress’. The emphasis on better rail should not ignore other transport, including roads and greener travel such as cycling and walking. Broadband connections are desperately poor in many areas, she adds.
After publishing a Powerhouse strategy in 2016, the Government is putting together a new one, partly due to Brexit. This should appear by the end of 2019. Arguments continue over further devolution deals, most especially in Yorkshire, and whether they require elected mayors.
The NPP’s blueprint identified Cheshire and Warrington, Yorkshire and the Humber, and Lancaster and south Cumbria as areas where deals are possible. Jake Berry says devolution must emerge from the ground up, avoiding party politics wherever possible. ‘The Northern Powerhouse is a partnership across the political divide, driven by place not politics,’ he says.
Back in Manchester, Sir Richard Leese says it is important councils develop strong links at all levels. ‘Some will be at neighbourhood level. Others have to be done with a bigger footprint,’ he says. ‘What we’re doing through the Northern Powerhouse is doing things at the right spatial level.’