Gill Morris, Founder and Chief Executive of DevoConnect, a consultancy which aims to build better devolution across the UK, discusses how investment in transport infrastructure can help unlock economic growth potential across the country.
The North needs better transport. With two huge rail projects in the pipeline, HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the Government finally has a chance to put its full weight behind plans for future northern prosperity. Delivering these rail projects together, all the way, and in full, will transform the entire country’s economy.
With a General Election in December, the Conservative Party has already indicated its willingness to invest in rail, connect the great cities of the North and deliver more Metro Mayor deals. If Prime Minister
Johnson can secure the majority he craves in order to deliver Brexit, it seems likely that there will be a far more devolved settlement for England, and a renewed openness to large-scale infrastructure investment.
Crucially, that could also mean a renewed emphasis on the importance of northern ports to the UK economy and, alongside ports, rail freight. With so many of our major ports based in England’s regions, the possibility of regional renewal led by freight investment is very real.
The Humber, for example, has the busiest port complex in the country, accounting for 23% of all goods travelling through English ports. It adds £7.6 billion GDA to the UK economy per year and supports 35,000 jobs across the North.
Already over a third of total UK rail freight is handled in the North, but with the full delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail, connecting the northern economy coast to coast and with North-South connections, this could surge.
Considerable private sector investment needs to be matched by substantial Government infrastructure funding, further building private sector confidence in the position of the North to lead on freight transfer by both rail and road.
“In the next three decades northern freight will expand by a huge 50% and the UK’s road and rail network will need some serious investment to cope.”
Regardless, however, with a climate emergency on the horizon, it is clear that rail will become more important in the years ahead. In the next three decades northern freight will expand by a huge 50% and the UK’s road and rail network will need some serious investment to cope.
But funding infrastructure like this isn’t just reactive, the future of the UK’s prosperity post-Brexit will rely on new trading arrangements with our ‘friends and partners’ in Europe. That means delivering on consistent political promises to ‘rebalance the economy’ and bring economic regeneration to those areas which have been ‘left behind’.
What’s the best way to do this? The answer is clear. Deliver on the plans that are already in place that have been specifically designed to rectify the huge 25% productivity gap between the North and the rest of the UK. That means committing to HS2 and NPR as well as upgrading existing East-West transport links to allow motorists, rail passengers, and freight to travel freely across a hugely expanded northern economic zone.
The figures are well-known but still shocking. Only 10,000 people are within an hour or less of four northern cities.
If NPR is delivered this number will rise to 1.3 million. The benefits of this for the cities and towns of the North cannot be overstated. It will revolutionise the way business is done and the opportunities people can grasp. It also, crucially, links the North’s major ports, powering businesses across the UK by bringing in crucial goods at hugely increased capacity.
And this investment in HS2 and NPR is doubly important because already thousands of organisations and businesses have put together detailed plans for growth, expansion, and regeneration based on delivery of these infrastructure projects. Businesses, investors, educational and other stakeholders in the public and private sectors are making decisions based on their arrival in the region.
“Already over a third of total UK rail freight is handled in the North, but with the full delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail, connecting the northern economy coast to coast and with North-South connections, this could surge.”
Ultimately, the future of the North is looking brighter. Surprising as it may be, the vote to leave the European Union has tied the Conservatives to a demanding, more working class-skewing Northern electorate. When the Party could guarantee a majority without these voters, they were ignored. Now, however, with the country polarised like never before, it could be a Conservative Government delivering major investment in the North of England. Our job, as businesses, politicians and pressure groups with an interest and involvement in Northern areas, is to ensure that the Government is held to its promises.