Power Up The North, But Is Anybody Listening?
The Big Beasts of the Conservative Party are now competing to be party leader. They face their first selection vote tomorrow, with Boris Johnson expected to top the poll.
But are any of the field of 10 potential new Prime Minister's listening to the North, or is everything drowned out by Brexit?
As new research is published showing the risks to funding for the North, Bisnow takes a look.
Earlier this week 33 Northern newspapers came together to call for politicians to pay serious attention to the North of England's economic needs.
The timing was no accident. A year of rail chaos, threats to the HS2 high speed rail investment and fitful progress on a vital trans-Pennine link reach a peak as the Conservative Party seeks a new leader, who will be the UK's new Prime Minister.
The region has scarcely been on the minds of leadership contenders. One of them, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, has admitted Brexit had overshadowed the Northern Powerhouse agenda, but some have argued the initiative suffocated when the political oxygen was removed three years ago.
A Lancashire MP supporting former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Johnson is the answer. But apart from earning a great deal of hostility from the citizens of Liverpool, it is not clear that Johnson has ever taken much interest in the North in general or Manchester in particular: He has mentioned the city just twice in Parliament, once in 2002 because parliamentary convention required him to mention the constituency of Gerald Kaufman, and once in 2015 to explain how the housing crisis was worse in the South.
"Now, at a time of unparalleled political uncertainty, we are calling on the main parties — and those who aspire to lead them — to spell out what they intend to do, and how they will work with others, to narrow the north-south divide," the newspapers said, adding that "every day of dither and delay risks leaving the North at an even greater disadvantage".
Editors called for "a genuine revolution" in the way government treats the North, and more investment in transport, housing and skills. They also want serious devolution and more control of the post-Brexit pot designed to replace EU regional aid.
The cause of much of the anxiety is a government fund intended to replace European Regional Development Funds, from which Greater Manchester has benefitted — projects to win ERDF funds include the Metrolink trams and the concert hall. Newspapers want the UK government to distribute the funds on the same criteria as the EU, in long-term settlements to local council leaders who, they say, are best placed to decide how it is spent.
A report published this week by the Communities in Charge campaign highlights the risks to this funding. So far, no details have been published on how the fund will work, and a consultation on its strategy had been delayed.
The report highlights fears that the fund will default to existing funding models, which are based on an HM Treasury cost-benefit analysis, which means investment in already successful areas scores more highly than investment in poorer areas. If the default model is adopted, the biggest winner from the new fund will not be the North but London and the South East, which will gain an extra £3.1B between 2021 and 2027. This is in contrast with European funding, which was allocated on a basis which favoured those areas that had the worst economic indicators.
In the meantime, much needed projects like the £600M Northern Hub expansion of capacity at Manchester's main railway stations are delayed. Five years after the plan was first published, a series of reviews and rethinks has concluded it was a sensible idea after all, but there has been no progress implementing it.
The Manchester property industry has long been supportive of devolution, and frequently critical of government infrastructure spending priorities. Early reactions suggest the North’s newspaper editors have correctly judged the local mood.
“Additional spending is welcome, especially at Manchester Piccadilly Station with additional platforms at Oxford Road," Lambert Smith Hampton Manchester Head of Planning, Development and Regeneration Simon Turner said. "This would create obvious benefits for the whole of the North. It seems a no-brainer.”
“To date, devolution has been centred around the allocation of local spending. If this is to be extended, there is a case to focus on areas like skills and transport. The impact will be seen and felt by all.”
Turner wants a lot more devolution.
“With great power comes great responsibility," he said. "It shouldn’t be just about how much money is spent in ‘The North’, rather the mechanism through which funding can be accessed. Effective devolution would see areas being given the means to raise their own funding.
"If areas invested well, they would increase their tax base, their ability to fund better services and therefore focus on growth. The domino effect is a positive one — new development would get more support if it were clearly linked to better infrastructure, public services and wider work opportunities for all,” he said.
The commercial property occupiers driving demand take a similar view.
“There’s no doubt that we now need fair investment so we can close the north-south economic divide,” Manchester Hoteliers Association Chair Adrian Ellis said.
“Transportation issues in Manchester, for instance, are making the city a less attractive place to commute and ultimately work in. In the hotel world and in hospitality this has a significant effect on both recruiting and retaining talent, despite so many fantastic universities existing on our doorstep.
“As it stands there are numerous hotels in the planning pipeline across Greater Manchester. In fact the 9,800 hotel bedrooms in the city at present is going to increase to 14,500 in the next four years. To keep occupancy levels high we need further investment from central government. And we need further investment, not just in our city region but in towns and cities across the north.”
Ellis said that resolving transport investment issues must now be a priority.
“The lack of investment in the North also has repercussions when it comes to Manchester bidding for and hosting major conferences. I fear if transport doesn’t receive adequate investment soon, that the city will lose out economically when it comes to hosting big events,” he said.
The headline chosen for the 33 regional papers was Power Up The North. But until government listens, it remains no more than a slogan.