07/04/2014 11:33 BST | Updated 07/06/2014 06:59 BST

Northern Infrastructure Needs Ambition and Leadership, Not Just Cash

Two recent interventions in the national infrastructure debate have given significant encouragement to those who believe public spending on big projects needs to be more focused on growth opportunities outside London and the South East.

Two weeks ago, speaking to Total Politics magazine, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin suggested that Londoners would have to wait for Crossrail 2 as there were other priorities across the country that needed attending to. This despite the fact that proponents argue that the majority of the project could be funded by private investment.

Last week, Sir David Higgins, chairman of HS2 Ltd., told the Commons Transport Committee that people in the south "would riot" if their rail services were as bad as those in the North and that public investment was being poured into London rather than improving Northern infrastructure. He went on to challenge industry and Northern leaders to develop more ambitious plans to reduce journey times between the major cities and a "Northern Hub 2".

Whether such interventions have any impact on the National Infrastructure Pipeline remains to be seen. Present plans show some 86 per cent of all public and private investment destined for London and the South East for many years to come and many of London's projects are much further advanced too.

The trend in transport is reflected in economic affairs spending generally: public spending on skills, R&D, transport and other growth drivers in London and the devolved nations has been rising rapidly over recent years. In comparison, there has been a steady fall to other regions, from 26 percent to just 20 percent of all public spending.

Higgins is right though, simply crying foul and pleading for a fair share of the pie is unlikely to help. The North of England needs to make an altogether more robust case. First, it needs to be clearer about its own grand plans and big visions: IPPR North is currently carrying out research to identify five big Northern infrastructure schemes of genuine national significance which can be championed at home and abroad. Second, we need to take on the appraisal methods and business models that so often privilege the direct user benefits over the wider economic impact that transport investment can bring. Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds universities are currently collaborating on a new ESRC-funded iBuild programme to do just that and more.

But above all else we need stronger, more collaborative leadership. The birth of new combined authorities around Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield city regions last week was a small step forward but, when it comes to big transport schemes, the same cross-border collaboration needs to be exercised between city regions too. Rail North is another step in the right direction in this regard but until the North has a Johnson or Salmond-type figure with stature and clout, the danger is that when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are, McLoughlin, Higgins and the like will not know who to call.