13/08/2015 13:46 BST | Updated 13/08/2016 06:59 BST

Is the Northern Powerhouse Off the Rails?


To mark 100 days of the first Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

The semi-rural backwater of Hebden Bridge briefly gained prominence last year as a candidate location for Britain's second city. As if that were not surreal enough, the genesis of the idea was a 65 year old research paper in the field of linguistics. George Zipf had noticed that the frequency with which specific words appear in a text tend to follow a particular statistical distribution. Later studies showed that the size of cities within a country tend to follow the same distribution. But on this basis, the UK's second city appears to be too small.

So the idea of a Northern Powerhouse was born. By combining the strengths of several urban areas adjoining the M62 corridor, a second city large enough to exploit the benefits of agglomeration could be created. This would require, amongst other things, good transport links and strong local governance. Plans for a high speed rail route across or through the Pennines were announced in June of last year. These were followed, in November, by the signing of a devolution agreement for the metropolitan area of Manchester - often referred to as devoManc.

More recently, devolution agreements have also been struck with other cities and regions, including Sheffield and Cornwall. The devoManc agreement has come to look more like a piece of a nationwide jigsaw than a genuine part of the Northern Powerhouse. Indeed, the fact that different cities in the north will have distinct, and potentially quite powerful, devolved administrations is likely to make cohesive decision making across the Powerhouse quite difficult.

After the general election, it was announced that the trans-Pennine high speed rail route would be paused. This delays, perhaps indefinitely, the creation of the Northern Powerhouse. Such an announcement, within weeks of a Queen's speech in which the Powerhouse received some prominence, is, at best, unfortunate. The combination of the benefits of infrastructure investment and the low cost at which the government can currently access funding should have made the project a no-brainer.

That said, the government's thinking about the Northern Powerhouse has been, at best, only part developed. A high-speed rail link is important for the development of the wider region, but no more so than the creation of good metropolitan transport services. This week's announcement of a range of transport projects in the north, badged under the Northern Powerhouse 'brand', focuses on projects that have been long under way, and looks more like convenient packaging than coherent thought. Of further concern is the government's failure to decide on where the Northern Powerhouse actually is. The high speed train link suggested that it lies on both sides of the Pennines; devoManc suggested that it does not; and more recently government celebrations on attracting foreign investment into the North East suggested that, all of a sudden, the Powerhouse has moved in that direction. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a worthy policy goal on which the government is in utter confusion.

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