Ever since it was announced by George Osborne, the Northern Powerhouse has been rather a point of contention, especially since the ascension of Theresa May to Downing Street, where the project has been neglected. The regional disparity in the government currently is best exemplified by transport policy, where, in 2017 at least, existing and planned spending per head was nearly £2,000 in London against just £427 in the North. The idea of rebalancing the economy away from the dominance of the South East is an entirely correct, and necessary one.
Since much of the focus of the Northern Powerhouse plan was on transport, including the central policy of ‘High Speed 3’, which is designed to link the northern cities together more efficiently, this powerhouse is pertinent. This is crucial, as it currently takes three hours to travel between cities like Hull and Liverpool, and is a much better proposed investment than High Speed 2, given that the journey between Birmingham and London for example is relatively fast already. While the original plans would not see the new lines opening for service until 2033, it was at least an ambitious and worthwhile plan to place much needed emphasis on the North.
However, like much of the Conservatives’ policy in recent years at least, the Northern Powerhouse appears to have been largely ignored and underfunded. Part of this is the vortex of Brexit, consuming the political attention of almost every other aspect of government. However, the problems of the Powerhouse originate from long before that, when the Conservatives announced just weeks after the 2015 election that, due to overspending and missed targets, projects to electrify lines from London to Sheffield and Manchester to Leeds were suspended. Much-maligned Transport Secretary Chris Grayling later scrapped the electrification project on the Midlands mainline (Sheffield to London) and cast heavy doubt on the survival of the Trans-Pennine project. These tasks were supposed to be the first steps towards Northern Powerhouse Rail, and so their rejection is disappointing. Without the investment in infrastructure in the North, particularly after Brexit, the wide-ranging re-energisation of the Northern economy will struggle.
The Northern Powerhouse project never seems to have been a political priority for the Conservatives. While it was one of George Osborne’s pet projects, and the notion of Chinese investment early in the process was promising, the first minister for the Northern Powerhouse, James Wharton, was found to have rarely visited the North while in office. Whilst as members of Parliament the opportunity for ministers to spend prolonged periods of time away from London is limited owing to Parliamentary business, it is a clear sign of a neglected project. This in itself is a problem which helps to explain why the North has long been underfunded, and why the whole project has little penetration within the Westminster ‘bubble’. The current minister, Jake Berry, when not disparaging the ‘machinery of the state’ (of which he is a part) for trying to prevent Brexit, has been advocating for a new royal yacht to ‘unite’ the country, which of course is money which would be far better spent on the Northern Powerhouse project he should be advocating.
While the current government does not seem to have much interest in properly funding the Northern Powerhouse project, it should not be abandoned. The regeneration of areas of the North is crucial, particularly in a post-Brexit economy. Our economy is far too unbalanced towards London and the south-east, and in northern areas which voted for Brexit, we need to understand why voters were driven to vote against the status quo, a question to which the answer is probably much greater investment in the North, to end the regional disparity currently plaguing the British economy. Unfortunately, under the current state of affairs adn due to a capital centric outlook that this parliament has, vital projects such as this will undoubtedly remain nothing but empty promises.