Don’t underestimate the challenges.
The simplest definition of the Northern Powerhouse is probably that of a single labour market of 9M people with the infrastructure to support it.
But it is worth remembering that this is not like the relatively compact area of Greater London plus a surrounding swathe of the South East. The distance from Liverpool to Newcastle or Hull is roughlythe same distance as from Brighton to Leicester, or from Reading to Norwich.
Greater London is a cohesive whole, with an established regional government and a well-funded public transport network.
Conversely, the Northern Powerhouse zone includes England’s second, fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth largest built-up areas, plus no fewer than a dozen more, each with populations of 125,000 to 375,000.
Our cities and towns are scattered around an area of roughly 200km by 200km, also containing five of England’s biggest national parks and their large adjacent Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The challenges of connectivity are not to be underestimated.
At the recent North West Construction Summit, the Northern Powerhouse of course featured heavily - as did the looming skills gap.
A “pipeline analysis” by Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce (GMCC) revealed that training needs for 2015-18 are 40% higher than for 2011-14. A recent conference hosted by GMCC on meeting the skills requirements for High Speed 2 also highlighted major needs.
The skills gap too will have to be addressed if we are to see major infrastructure developments transform the North.
However, things are moving forward. The recent Budget announced the prioritisation of transport improvements, the creation of a strategic transport body, Transport for the North, and the promise of a Northern Oyster card.
In fact, Transport for Greater Manchester has already introduced smart payment via card, which is gradually spreading and before long will include the tram, bus and train networks serving a population of 2.5M people. Joining up the whole of the North in this way is of course a much more ambitious proposal, but the first steps on this journey have already been taken.
In creating the Northern Powerhouse there will be many challenges.
Civil engineers have an opportunity to play a proactive role. No one is better placed to identify technical solutions that can help deliver big social and economic gains.
Politicians do of course need to get people excited about the opportunities of devolution - but we should help them put together a compelling story about the benefits that can flow if infrastructure decision making happens closer to the people it most affects.
This should make it easier for them to provide a climate of certainty for investors by committing the resources needed to develop the North’s infrastructure.
- Alan Butler is ICE North West regional director