Is it significant that chancellor George Osborne’s first speech since the election was heavily infrastructure-focused?
Osborne was, by “no coincidence” he said, in Manchester to talk about his vision for a northern powerhouse.
It’s an intriguing idea; bundling up Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool to create a catchment that contains 10M people - that’s a bigger pool of people than Tokyo, New York or London - and includes nearly 2M graduates.
Harnessing this talent could - would, says Osborne - go a long way towards rebalancing the UK economy.
It’s hard to argue against. Economic evidence shows there is a powerful correlation between city size and the productivity of its inhabitants. The top 600 cities in the world contain just 20% of the global population, but contribute 60% to global GDP.
So the reasons are compelling. What’s needed to make it happen?
Well, infrastructure mainly. As Osborne said in launching the concept last June, northern infrastructure is pretty rubbish. Take Manchester and Sheffield - just 60km apart yet it still takes over 1 hour 20 minutes to travel between them by car.
In the cities it is no better. While bus trips in the capital are up a third over the last 10 years, they’re down by 7% in the northern cities. There are plenty of other examples.
Source: Abhijit Tembhekar
So it is no surprise that Osborne wants to see more infrastructure investment in the North. But how’s he going to fund it?
Well, central government is committed to the £600M Northern Hub rail upgrade, centred on Manchester. And Highways England’s nationwide programme will begin to address many north east and north west bottlenecks.
High Speed 3, under development, would link Manchester to Leeds and early work is even being done on a trans-Pennine highway tunnel from Manchester to Sheffield.
But a lot of that is not funded. What’s the key to unlocking the funding? Well that’s why Osborne was really in Manchester, announcing that a City Devolution Bill would be in this month’s Queen’s Speech.
The intention, said Osborne, is to “hand power from the centre to cities to give you greater control over your local transport, housing, skills and healthcare”. This will be done through elected mayors, aping the London model which has led to significant investment in transport - principally Crossrail and the vital London Underground upgrades.
It’s worked in London, but will it work elsewhere? London has worked for a number of reasons, not least by having two very different but very passionate and persuasive mayors in Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson.
It is going to be harder to achieve in the North. Maybe this is where the civil engineering fraternity comes in and gets behind the plan in a big way.
As Osborne said this week: “I don’t want the ideas, the ambition, the energy and the creativity of any part of our nation to go to waste.” Sounds like something a civil engineer would support doesn’t it?
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor