The Government must not waver from its commitment to the North

If there's one thing that is certain in the wake of the EU referendum it's that there is going to be a considerable degree of uncertainty. We have already seen nervousness in the financial markets and in fighting on the Commons benches. Such is the pace of events that I can't even begin to second guess developments between writing this article and its publication. This uncertainty will rumble on for some time.

But whatever your take on the vote to leave the European Union – and here in Manchester we voted convincingly to remain – it has happened, and we have to look calmly to the future.

Cities like Manchester are working hard to send a clear message to investors, international or otherwise, that we remain very much open for business and that our longterm
priorities are unchanged.

It's important that the Government does the same. I have been asked repeatedly since the Brexit vote whether this means that the Northern Powerhouse initiative is in jeopardy.

In fact the uncertainty following the referendum result makes it even more vital for the UK that its great northern cities can collectively reach their full economic potential and begin to rebalance the national economy.

The recently published Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review states that, with the right infrastructure and investment, the North of England has the potential to add £97bn and 850,000 jobs to the national economy by 2050. This is a prize the nation cannot afford to throw away, and it's essential that the Government reaffirms its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse.

The logic behind it is no less compelling than it ever was. With improved connections and a concerted focus on the North's distinctive capabilities (the economic review identified advanced manufacturing, digital development, health innovation and energy as four world-leading capabilities with education, logistics and financial and professional services as complementary strengths) the region could dramatically up its game in productivity and job creation.

Transport is, of course, fundamental to that, which is why we need to move full speed ahead with HS2. This is not just about high speed services, it is about capacity and ensuring that our rail network does not grind to a halt.

We also need to see early progress on Northern Powerhouse Rail (the so-called HS3) and the complementary east-west road improvements, helping link the great northern cities together and bringing about a step change in their connectivity.

Here in the North we've always known such an ambitious infrastructure project would require a concerted long-term commitment. If the Government is serious about its long-term economic plan, wavering now would be a massive mistake.

There is no reason at present to suggest it will. There seems to be an assumption in some quarters that if George Osborne was to cease to be chancellor the Northern Powerhouse, with which he has been closely identified, will run out of steam.

But though Osborne does deserve credit for driving the idea forward in Westminster, it should be understood that the ideas at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse – including Northern Powerhouse Rail – originated from the northern cities working together and have been embraced not only by the Government but by local transport authorities and LEPs across the North.

Equally, they have been espoused by others in government, including through the establishment of a team of Northern Powerhouse ministers. Earlier this month commercial secretary to the Treasury Jim O'Neill restated its importance.

This isn't about who claims credit for the idea or the progress so far – it doesn't really matter. But it does matter to the lives of millions of people in the north of England that we forge ahead with this vision as quickly as possible. It was never a concept that relied on one person, or a particular set of political circumstances. Instead it is rooted in the reality that the economy of the North is underperforming relative to the South, but if that economic gap can be closed the whole nation wins – not least the Exchequer through increased tax revenue.

We are working with the Government to come up with a single economic strategy for the North with shared priorities for transport connections, skills and employment, trade and investment, innovation and science and even housing to ensure the area can reach its full potential.

In these times of uncertainty, there could be no more convincing way for the Government to steady the ship than by rapidly reaffirming its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse.

This is not just the major cities of the North – Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and of course Manchester. The northern economic narrative is as relevant to rural areas and smaller towns as it is to major cities, and gives a base for us to speak together with one voice, a voice that cannot be ignored.

Now is not the time to lose our collective focus.

Reference: Transport Times, July 2016 Issue

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