The Northern Powerhouse. A concept coined by ex-Chancellor George Osborne five years ago, which at the time symbolised his ambitions to unite the great cities of the North – from Liverpool to Hull – and eradicate the North-South divide. Different strategies were laid out to achieve this goal, including the upgrade of modern transport links to better connect Northern cities like Liverpool and Hull, increased digital connectivity, devolved power to local authorities, and increased investment.
Collectively, it was hoped these steps would fuel powerful economic growth and enhance the prosperity of the North. Five years on, statistics confirm that substantial progress has been made. However, there is still much to be done to ensure that we build on the momentum and promote long-lasting, tangible benefits to those living and working in the North.
With Boris Johnson stepping as the new Prime Minister, there is now an opportunity to reinvigorate the project. But how will Johnson go about injecting new life into the Northern Powerhouse?
Where does the Northern Powerhouse project stand today?
Before we consider this question, it is helpful to reflect on the achievements that have already been made. Since 2014 when the project was first launched, the North of England has undeniably been transformed by this government-led initiative to boost the region’s economy, create jobs and encourage innovation.
An analysis by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) North reveals that employment in this region has increased approximately 7% compared to the UK average of just over 6%. If we are to delve a bit deeper, there are 34,000 more jobs in professional, scientific and technical jobs in 2019 compared with 2014, plus a further 54,523 jobs in manufacturing roles.
Meanwhile, economic growth in the North has been higher than the national average, with a 10.7% rise during this same time period, compared with 10.6% for the UK as a whole and 9.7% for the UK excluding London.
On balance, the project has thus far been successful. However, we cannot ignore some of the shortcomings that have been encountered. IPPR North pinpoints a lack of spending as a possible downfall, nothing that while transport spending in the North had increased by £149 per person in real terms since 2014, this was less than half the £330 per person increase in London. In practical terms, this has resulted in major falls in the quality and reliability of transport – almost one in every 20 transport services was either cancelled or more than 30 minutes late arriving to its destination in 2018-19.
To counteract this trend, we need to see some bold measures adopted by the government which are aimed at supporting transport and infrastructure.
Does Boris Johnson have the answers?
As it currently stands, this is precisely the approach that Boris Johnson appears to be supporting. At the end of July, during a speech delivered in Manchester, Johnson unveiled his plans to fund a high-speed rail route between Leeds and Manchester, asserting that this would help “turbo-charge the economy”.
While we must reserve caution and wait for concrete action to back up this ambition, what this announcement symbolises is that the government certainly has not gone cold on the goals of the Northern Powerhouse. Rather, this ambitious project has once again been placed firmly on the agenda, with attention being diverted to ironing out the obstacles currently standing in the way of its continued success.
With infrastructure at the heart of connectivity, and with it, economic growth and prosperity, this commitment holds real promise. And as private developers heed to demand for new-build developments in high-growth cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, the government must ensure the correct infrastructure is in place to support the region’s growing population.
More generally, the new Prime Minister has promised to rebalance power, growth and productivity across the UK – with improved public services, enough affordable homes and more responsibility and accountability at the core of this ambition.
In particular, we can expect Johnson to divert more focus on rebalancing power by devolving power from Whitehall to elected mayors and local leaders – a move that has garnered the support of business leaders in the region, who want to see the North take greater control of its own progress.
How these promises will play out in practice remains to be seen. However, I am encouraged by the fact that Boris Johnson has place the Northern Powerhouse at the heart of his strategy so early on in his role.
Jerald Solis is the Business Development and Acquisitions Director at Experience Invest, a company that provides property investors in the UK and overseas access to exclusive investments across a variety of asset classes. He is also a Director at Opto Property Group; a construction firm committed to creating developments that have a long-term, positive impact.