Article orginally written for Place North West on 13th August 2015.
In the run-up to the election David Cameron set out his plans for the first 100 days of a new Government. At that point few had predicted that the Conservatives would be entering office with a majority. So, how has the first 100 days impacted on the North West, asks Rebecca Eatwell.
The question on everyone’s lips pre-election was whether the promise of a Northern Powerhouse would materialise or whether it was just electioneering, cleverly designed to get the Northern vote out. In reality I expect there are few that think it was just an election promise with Osborne driving the policy from his Cheshire constituency. But, do the Conservatives look like they will deliver on their manifesto commitments?
The initial steps appeared positive with the Chancellor using his first speech after the election to address the key investments planned for the North of England, in what he called putting ‘the Power into Northern Powerhouse’.
Then there was the appointment of ‘passionate Northerner’ Jim O’Neill, as the Treasury’s Northern Powerhouse commercial secretary and James Wharton as the responsible Minister. This signaled a move towards delivery and away from the rhetoric that dominated the debate pre-election. However, within weeks both were left defending the Government’s commitment as a number of key transport projects stalled – including the Transpennine rail electrification project, the Ordsall Chord and smart ticketing. Jim O’Neill also faced a political storm after saying that Manchester is ‘at the heart’ of the Northern Powerhouse, with Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port & Neston claiming that the government doesn’t really know where the North actually is.
Unsurprisingly there are those that have jumped on the opportunity to highlight cracks in what seemed like a universally supported policy. Labour MP for Wythenshawe Mike Kane has described the delays as a ‘litany of disasters’ with others claiming that it is naive to think that Northern cities can be pulled together into one homogenous economic power.
With devolution at its heart it is not surprising that Manchester is seen as the golden child of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. It has only been through capitulation on having a metro mayor that Manchester will get control over budgets for transport, housing, police and health. The most talked about element of the ‘Devo Manc’ deal has been the handing over of control of the £6bn health budget from April 2016 – something which critics have argued could see greater privatisation and a drop in standards.
Another controversial aspect of the deal has been the lack of democracy in the decision-making. Devo Manc was reportedly negotiated in secret by Sir Howard Bernstein and Chancellor George Osborne; the new interim Metro Mayor (and current Police and Crime Commissioner) Tony Lloyd was appointed, and not elected, to the role. However, on the flip side business leaders have been praising the deal, arguing that it will enable the region to act more flexibly and respond more quickly to changing needs. There are plenty of questions around devolution that need answering over the coming months, not least the governance arrangements and how to ensure the new structures don’t lead to new levels of bureaucracy.
Earlier this week the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was in Bolton to reiterate the government’s commitment to deliver £13bn investment in northern transport. Launching the ‘Connecting the Northern Powerhouse’ campaign he has insisted that it’s full steam ahead. This blueprint for the Northern Powerhouse – which includes a new ‘TransNorth’ rail network; upgrading the M62 and M6; and an Oyster-style travel card covering the whole of the North – has been criticised as just a re-announcement of schemes that have been already publicised. But its significance lies beyond the individual projects it contains. It signals a strong message from Government that they are determined to lead the debate and keep the initiative on track.
Undoubtedly the Northern Powerhouse strategy was as much about party politics as political economy, but frankly as a Northerner I’m not sure I care. There is a growing momentum behind it that represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for this region and we shouldn’t get distracted from that – whatever your political leanings. The most important thing over the coming months is for the business community across the North to work together to ensure that the Northern Powerhouse moves from ideology into delivery. The North of England has been given a ‘powerful new voice’ – let’s make sure we use it to our advantage.