21/06/2019 08:42 BST | Updated 21/06/2019 08:42 BST

The Northern Powerhouse: Five Years On, The Next Prime Minister Can Still Realise Its Potential

George Osborne's plan to eradicate the North-South divide and unite our great northern cities was, and is, exciting – but there's still unacceptable inequalities, Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell writes

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Five years ago today, then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne stood up in the Power Hall of Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry and first used the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’. The vision of linking up the great cities of the North, stretching from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east, with far greater transport and digital connectivity and collaboration between businesses, was – and still is – captivating and exciting.

The economist Lord Jim O’Neill, brought into the Treasury to establish and deliver the Northern Powerhouse, advanced the economic argument that the unique proximity of the Northern cities to one another could create a whole far greater than the sum of their parts – a chance to rebalance the economy and eradicate the North-South divide.

Five years on, significant progress has been made. We have seen the establishment of metro mayors in five Northern city regions, investment in science and research assets such as the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials and graphene centres and Transport for the North being set up to create a world-class transport network. However, there remains an unacceptable gap between North and South in a wide range of important areas.

Take education. While ever more graduates are choosing to remain in the North and primary school attainment is improving in many regions, there is still a major gap in school outcomes as compared to the South East. In Greater Manchester alone, more than 10,000 children are starting school without basic life skills. Investment in apprenticeships and skills must be an urgent priority.

Disadvantage has a significant impact – more than half of the secondary schools in the UK with the most entrenched levels of economic disadvantage are in the North of England. We urgently need targeted investment of these areas to reverse the under-performance of these schools and create opportunities for our young people right across the North to shine.

Improving Northern Transport is essential if we are to create a balanced UK economy. Transport is a major consideration in attracting and retaining staff and the current state of rail travel in particular hinders economic growth and productivity. The solution has to be significant infrastructure investment, which the North both needs and deserves. Only by committing to both the Northern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) – the transformational east-west network across the North – as well as investing in local services can we hope to deliver the Northern Powerhouse. Currently only 10,000 people can access four or more Northern cities within an hour; this would rise to 1.3million with NPR.

HS2 will release capacity on both sides of the Pennines, and would further reinforce Manchester Airport as the gateway to the North, increasing the number of people who can access the airport within an hour from two million today to 4.7million, and within 90 minutes by four million to 8.7 million - over half of the North’s population. Clearly this is vital for a leading university, to attract both students and staff, but is also important for the Northern economy.

The North also falls behind other parts of the UK in funding for research and development. The commitment from government to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP is welcome, but this money must reflect the world-leading strengths at Northern universities and research centres as well as those in the South East.

The expertise in the North around advanced manufacturing and materials, energy, life sciences and heath innovation, creative and digital has the potential to create skilled jobs and develop new industries for the UK to export all over the world. Yet In 2016 every region in the Northern Powerhouse had lower spending per head on research and development than the UK average; £438 in the North West, £258 in Yorkshire and the Humber and £240 in the North East. 

Government needs to urgently address these critical areas if they want to deliver a Northern Powerhouse for the 15million people of the North that can boost the UK’s economy and prosperity. The business and civic leaders of the North have come together, across traditional regional and political boundaries, to call for meaningful interventions from government to tackle these inequalities. It is time for a new prime minister to unleash the North’s potential and complete the good work started by the Northern Powerhouse.

President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester and a Board member of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership