The full challenge facing George Osborne’s plan to create a “Northern Powerhouse” is today highlighted by a former global banker who points to years of transport failures in the region.
Jim O’Neill, former chairman of asset management at Goldman Sachs, has published a report from his City Growth Commission in which he describes how the UK economy is being held back as officials in Whitehall keep control of local transport and infrastructure decisions.
The call to hand the North a bigger say over its own future comes weeks after the Chancellor said he wants to rebalance the economy away from the South East, with a major new high speed rail network linking up the likes of Manchester and Leeds among the projects proposed.
But without handing city leaders a say over improving outdated infrastructure, the commission says, the Chancellor faces a tough task in matching that ambition with real change.
In his report Mr O’Neill warned that meeting Mr Osborne’s ambition would require “significant change” from Government.
The report, based on hearings in Newcastle and other cities, says Metropolitan areas like Tyne and Wear must be given a bigger say over their own future. The commission found that the UK loses billions of pounds every year as a result of poor, overly-centralised decision-making that fails to encourage greater links between cities.
Plans for a new high speed rail network must be improved so links from the North are prioritised, the commission said.
Talking of the need to strengthen Northern “metro” areas, Mr O’Neil said: “We recommend the Government considers making two bold decisions regarding its infrastructure policy. The first is to provide metros with a strong, powerful voice that can influence and guide decision making at a national level.
“For too long, our cities have not had a seat at the table, and this has been to the detriment of Northern metros in particular, as well as the economic growth of the UK economy as a whole.
“The second is to place connectivity between metros at the heart of any infrastructure investment, in particular via multiple transport links between cities and better broadband technology.
“Whilst the UK is starting to move in the right direction – with the creation of Infrastructure UK and the Chancellor’s recent proposal for a connected ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – there is still some way to go.”
Those transport concerns were last night backed by Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, vice-chair of the All Parliamentary Rail in the North group.
He said: “The difference in spending on transport between London and ourselves is about 520 to one, and even just changing the funding system now will not address the historic deficit we face. Time and time again we have lost out, and will continue to do so while the Government makes spending decisions based on congestion rather than on helping us grow.”
The lack of a Northern advocate in Government has again been highlighted after yesterday’s Government reshuffle.
Former regional minister Nick Brown warned: “The position of the English regions is weaker now than before the reshuffle. The surprise announcement of William Hague and the dilution of Greg Clark’s City Minister responsibilities leaves the English regions even less represented than they were before. This is a Home Counties reshuffle.”
The Government recently went some way to addressing the transport issues facing the region with its local growth fund announcement. With local contributions, the Government decision paved the way for £95m of infrastructure improvements. A “Provisional Allocation” of £78.7m was also announced for a number of further schemes due to start in 2016.
Ministers have also recently signed off on a new North East super council, the Combined Authority, which they say will be used to devolve new powers down to city regions.