The 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.