George Osborne has been busy. Less than a week after being re-elected in his constituency Tatton, which lies just south of Greater Manchester, he made the trip to the North again to present an extension of his plans to create a Northern Powerhouse. Speaking in Manchester, he foretold dramatic improvements in intercity transport, investment in science and culture and a ‘radical devolution’ of powers to cities willing to have a directly elected mayor. Much of his reasoning was compelling. In his speech, the chancellor pointed out that ‘within 40 miles of Manchester, you have … a belt of cities and towns that contains ten million people – more than Tokyo, New York or London.’
What lies at the centre of the Northern Powerhouse vision is the idea that if the major cities of the North were better connected, they could combine to create a region capable of powering economic growth and rebalance an economy skewed towards London. The ambitious Northern transport strategy was developed in the past year by Transport for the North (TfN), a collaboration between transport agencies and local government. It is in essence a strategy to bring the major cities of the North closer by reducing travel times across the region, and by introducing an integrated smart ticketing system along the lines of the Oyster card. The major cities focused on are Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle.
The above diagram of commuting patterns in the North was used in the report on the Northern transport strategy to show the potential for higher volumes of intercity commuting between the cities of the North. However, there is a more striking conclusion to be drawn from the image: the North East’s urban centres are most certainly not in Osborne’s Northern ‘belt’ around Manchester. Tyneside is around 100 miles from Manchester – comparable to the distance between Birmingham and London – and it usually takes well over two hours to make that journey by train. Transport for the North promises to reduce travel time between Newcastle and its closest major city Leeds to 60 minutes. This kind of investment will help bridge the gap, but it will struggle to integrate Newcastle into a distant network of businesses and commuters centred on the North West and West Yorkshire.
This has not been lost on local politicians, who are keen for more investment in the North East but see Northern Powerhouse projects as skewed towards the North West. Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle city council, responded to the last Budget in March by commenting, "The chancellor clearly thinks the North starts and ends with Manchester.” Things have become trickier still since Osborne made his offer of devolved powers over spending conditional on accepting a directly elected ‘metro-wide’ mayor in the fashion of Greater Manchester. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority and its new mayor will have control of a £6 billion NHS budget, a new £300 million Housing Investment Fund and will be able to keep the proceeds of its business rates growth. But three years after Newcastle rejected the mayoral system, there is still less appetite for a mayor controlling the unwieldy and diverse North East Combined Authority. Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland are cities with very different identities, and the council leaders of all three cities immediately reacted to the speech with scepticism. There is a danger that the North East will be further left behind as the rest of the powerhouse gains speed.
None of this should detract from the chancellor’s vision for the North East that could help the area fulfil its economic potential. Communities Secretary Greg Clark and the minister responsible for the Northern Powerhouse, James Wharton, are from Middlesbrough and County Durham respectively and are unlikely to neglect the region. However, the North East’s differences to the rest of the North mean that a more bespoke approach might serve it better.