If we get it right, the Northern Powerhouse can be a great opportunity for civil engineers and communities across the North.
We have the capacity and the know-how to deliver infrastructure improvements to support the economic development of the Northern regions and underpin growth in UK plc. If we get it wrong, then at best, nothing changes, and the North limps along, underperforming, exporting graduates and other talent, and contributing to the overheating in the South East. The ICE’s Northern Powerhouse Panel has given some serious thought to this over the last year, and in September, launched its report, Delivering a Northern Infrastructure Strategy, with clear recommendations about what we need to do across a range of issues to help us get it right.
One essential is a strategy to prioritise investment which delivers benefits to the whole of the North. It must incorporate transport, graduate and other skills, job markets, housing, energy, water…the list goes on. The challenge is to find a way for the North to incorporate all of the needs into a unified approach, with one body made of representatives from all geographies, and across the political divides, to agree investment priorities for the greater good.
As regional directors, it was refreshing for us to work on a policy document with such resonance for all our members across the North. Take for example the thorny issue of transport investment. Successive governments have invested heavily, often focused on getting commuters into a city in the morning, and home again in the evening. As a strategy, this certainly improves most journeys with least effort. But only 5M of the 15M inhabitants in the North work in cities.
The rest do not follow this model of commuting. Those that travel around, across, and through northern cities find it incredibly, mind-numbingly difficult. Try getting from Preston to Leeds on a Monday morning. Or from Chester to Carlisle on a Friday night…or from Liverpool to Hull anytime. You get the message. And this also applies to goods; our brilliant northern exporters want quick, cheap means of transporting their goods to distribution outlets, ports, airports and markets. If northern experts had been given carte blanche to prioritise transport investment, the money would have been spent very differently.
On a personal level, we rely extensively on transport networks to get us from home to meet members in Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Middlesbrough, Hull, Carlisle and all points between, so this is not just an academic point for us. But we rely just as heavily on broadband connections. Office-based colleagues have no idea how tricky it can be securing a good connection in the outer reaches of Northern England.
But it does not have to be like this. If we could just get that sorted, the productivity of a significant proportion of the population would increase overnight. Then extend that to the opportunities for digital railways, real time journey information, energy management…
The report has already received resounding endorsement from a broad range of stakeholders, including the Liverpool Metro Mayor. Have a look and tell us what you think at http://bit.ly/2yc6zck
- Darrell Matthews is ICE North West director, Penny Marshall is ICE North East and Yorkshire & Humber director