Transport investment and the North’s development dilemmas

[Co-authored with Tom Hunt]

In June 2014 George Osborne laid out his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ concept in a speech in Manchester. He set out the four ‘ingredients’ of his vision:

By joining our northern cities together – not physically, or into some artificial political construct – but by providing the modern transport connections they need; by backing their science and universities; by backing their creative clusters; and giving them the local power and control that a powerhouse economy needs.

In the long term, if the Northern Powerhouse agenda is significantly to change the political economy of the North, then it is the fourth ingredient – devolving economic powers – that could prove to be the most significant. Yet the plans in this regard are far from transformative. It is clear that Osborne saw the most important priority to be his first ingredient: that is, improving transport connections. Later in his 2014 speech, he went on to promise ‘a series of massive investments in the transport infrastructure in the north’ and grabbed headlines by raising the prospect of building a ‘High Speed 3‘ rail link between Manchester and Leeds.

Increased transport investment would of course be welcome throughout the North. But in-itself, this represents a rather conservative agenda for economic change. Better transport alone will not transform the dysfunctional markets that characterise many industries in the North. In fact, it is largely an agenda for making the North more attractive to globally mobile transnational corporations, rather than nurturing domestic productive capacity.

This is actually what makes it all the more surprising that the Government is now failing to put its money where its mouth is.

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