THE BLOG

A Destination of Choice: Empowering the North

28/11/2014 11:31 GMT | Updated 28/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The North of England led from the front in the heat of the Industrial Revolution. A Northern Powerhouse can lead the post-industrial (and re-industrial) twenty-first century, too. It can become what Sir Howard Bernstein of Manchester City Council calls "a destination of choice for investors". With the new investment in transport connectivity and skills already announced - and more expected in next week's Autumn Statement - the North should also be a destination of choice for career-seekers, tourists, audiences, families, and many more.

Under Government plans for a Powerhouse of the North, we see a welcome, growing willingness to transfer power to our big cities, and invest at considerable scale of ambition in our Northern transport infrastructure. The Chancellor has set out a compelling vision, and it must now be matched by equal enthusiasm among local authorities not just to take the powers, but to pool them - and their existing competences and budgets - in collaborative local partnerships with strong leadership. Greater Manchester is the first to agree signed terms; Merseyside, having agreed in principle, looks set to be next.

As we know well in Cheshire, a culture of collective action along the Science Corridor from Liverpool in the west via Manchester to Macclesfield in the east is crucial for future growth. We have already seen what can be achieved when "city" and "county" work together in common cause. In early 2013, the prospects for Cheshire's vast Alderley Park site had looked dire, as AstraZeneca announced plans to migrate thousands of research and development staff to Cambridge. Now, at the end of 2014, the site has a new owner: Manchester Science Parks - and hundreds of new jobs are being created. This would not have been possible without the close collaboration of Cheshire East Council, Manchester City Council and the University of Manchester. It is a powerful case study of collaborative partnerships in action, securing £20 million Growth Deal funding earlier in the year to encourage investment is a further boost.

To be a destination of choice, the North needs more than delegated and pooled powers, it needs to be an interconnected place that people can easily get to and get around. London, after all, is a powerhouse conurbation of historic towns and villages from Uxbridge to Upminster and commuter towns beyond. But, notoriously, it currently takes longer to get from Liverpool to Hull than from London to Paris. In response, the Government has put forward a number of positive initiatives, if local partners agree: from big new transpennine high-speed rail projects, to overdue rail electrification on existing lines and much more localised regeneration.

By building support among local partners there are projects being identified and deals being struck, which will help local private enterprise to flourish. Even before the announcement of pooled powers for a new Mayor of Greater Manchester, the area's Local Economic Partnership (LEP) had secured half a billion pounds from the Government's Local Growth Fund. Indeed, there are locally focused initiatives proposed or underway across the North: a Northern Hub for transport connections centred on Manchester; improvements to the crossover in Blackpool between railways and trams; integration in Preston between rail, bus and the town centre, and so on. This will enable the free movement of skills across the region, and feed a full range of jobs, including high-skill, high-tech academic research opportunities such as those provided at the new graphene hub at the University of Manchester.

We need to highlight and support the world-class culture in the North of England, too. We now have one the most supportive tax regimes for creative industries anywhere, and the proportion of Lottery funding by the Arts Council has increased from 30% to 40% outside of London since the Government came to office in 2010. Growth Deals can help further bolster the emerging creative clusters in the North (such as Media City at Salford Quays), and by regenerating areas of public realm, they will reshape places where people will want to live, work, visit and invest. Like all Growth Deal projects, they are being delivered with the Local Enterprise Partnerships. And it is this local ownership of projects, this local collaborative effort, that is vital to success.

A Powerhouse of the North is not a pipedream, it's a long-term plan. If we get it right, current UK productivity could be boosted by 5% according to economist Jim O'Neill of the Royal Society of Arts City Growth Commission. National Government will provide where necessary, while empowering the local government of the North wherever possible in Growth Deals and City Deals. It is the start of a major transfer of power to the North and needs to be matched by a collaborative pooling of power in the North, its towns, cities and counties. A Government that enables, indeed demands, growth and jobs from local deals can truly put the Northern Powerhouse on the world map. And, as George Osborne has shown, a Conservative Government is best placed to deliver.