The North wants clean energy to power the Powerhouse

KeepitcleanThe Northern Powerhouse: everyone’s talking about it, but no one’s quite sure what it is, or where it is, for that matter.

Is it Manchester, where the phrase was first aired? Or all the northern cities, mapped out in a network, like atoms in a sheet of graphene? And what about the greenish bits in between: are the countryside and smaller towns simply blank space, to be passed through at high speed?

Today, the shape of it became a little clearer when the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published its advice on how to improve the region’s transport connectivity. The headline recommendation – kick-starting HS3 – was unsurprising, coming from a commission whose chair, one of the UK’s premier train geeks, was the driving force behind HS2.

Taking a strategic approach to infrastructure planning is a welcome step. Last year, we identified a gap in strategic planning, and in public engagement, between the national and local levels. The regional scale makes sense for infrastructure planning, and the Transport for the North initiative from the six northern city regions appears to be dovetailing smoothly with the NIC’s activities.

But two crucial Northern Powerhouse questions remain unanswered.

Will people get any say?
The first is whether and how people who live in the north will get a say in the region’s future. The NIC is an exercise in top down expertise: there’s been plenty of clever analysis, but no opportunity so far for the public to participate in strategic, place-based discussions about the different ways in which their needs could be met, where infrastructure should go, and the trade-offs involved.

It’s questionable to what extent government decision making is truly grounded in the region, given that 97 per cent of the senior civil servants in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ department work in London, while BIS’s Sheffield office is closing, with staff retreating to the capital.

What will power it?
The second question is about energy. What’s actually going to power this Northern Powerhouse? Most of the headlines relating to energy in the north have been about (residents’ resistance to) fracking, which has been a case study, incidentally, in how not to engage the public in infrastructure planning, with the government’s heavy handed tactics running directly counter to the spirit of devolution.

But, since this winter’s floods, many northern communities have become unhappily familiar with what a climate changed world will look like. Last week, 90 organisations from across northern England signed a declaration calling for the chancellor to back clean energy for the north. They point out,

The North is already designing, building and exporting the new low carbon products and services that the whole world wants and has committed to buy, from wind turbines to electric vehicles. Renewable energy, efficient homes and workplaces, and smart technologies will all support local jobs and businesses. And they enable communities to shape their own energy futures, as towns and villages across the North have done since Baywind in Cumbria, which was the UK’s first ever renewable energy co-operative.”

The signatories, which include the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, business groups, community and nature conservation organisations, conclude:

“The future we want is one with clean air, healthy people and resilient communities … The UK government should be celebrating clean energy as core to its economic plan. To cherish what we love about our region and reassert our place in the forefront of the world’s economy, we ask the chancellor to back clean energy for the North.”

Whatever comes of the Northern Powerhouse, there’s a window of opportunity this year to grant the wish of the people and ensure it has clean energy at its heart.

One comment

  • Richard Burnett-Hall

    Lots of good questions to which we deserve answers. (Incidentally, why is the Chancellor of the Exchequer apparently making all the running on the “Northern Powerhouse”? Hasn’t he got better things to do, or are none of his Cabinet colleagues with more relevant portfolios with him on this?
    He might usefully start with devolution within the Cabinet.) The failure to involve all the other urban and rural areas, and their local authorities, in the North (wherever that is) is a major defect, given the need for issues such as transport (especially cars, trains, planes), energy generation and distribution (renewable and otherwise), waste treatment and recycling, and water supply and waste water treatment, to be administered on a truly regional basis, and not solely within the major population centres. Not to mention non-environmental matters such as health services, policing and tertiary education.

    The obvious solution is surely to bring about substantial devolution to a number of new, democratically accountable, regional authorities within England. Since the Maastricht Treaty England has been divided into regions (now nine), and though there has never yet been true democratic devolution to them, they have formed the basis of much local administration, and they are still the regional constituencies that elect the English members of the European Parliament. We should build on these, and over time, say 10 to 15 years, create powerful, democratically accountable, authorities that act largely autonomously within the scope of the powers devolved to them. The precise number of regions and their boundaries would of course be open to debate, but the existing ones make an excellent starting point. Maybe Yorkshire and some at least of the North-west should form a single region – others are better equipped than me to address that. In due course these authorities should become equivalent in status to the regional governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and have appropriate electoral systems. This new tier of government would render county (though not district) councils redundant, which should in effect merge, with potentially substantial long term savings. The Westminster Parliament would then be exclusively concerned only with UK-wide issues, such as the national economy, foreign policy and defence, and “English votes for English laws” would cease to be an issue at Westminster.

    It is no answer to this that the North-east voted to reject a regional assembly in 2004. John Prescott was not allowed by his Labour government colleagues to offer any meaningful devolution of powers from Whitehall, merely a toothless debating chamber that the electorate understandably did not want.

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