High Speed North – building blocks for the Northern Powerhouse

An article by leading economist and member of the National Infrastructure Commission Bridget Rosewell.

The National Infrastructure Commission launched its third report on 15th March looking the connectivity needs of the Northern Powerhouse.  Recommendations include improving the key rail link between Manchester and Leeds which is at the heart of the East West link, focusing HS2 on linkages which generate economic growth, and accelerating investment in smart motorway usage on the M62.

These recommendations fit into the strategy which is being developed by Transport for the North.  Their report, published on 11th March, has come a long way in the short time of their existence to develop their ideas for economic development and how transport needs to fit in.  They, like the Commission, have understood that connectivity is necessary but not sufficient for economic growth.

TfN has identified some opportunity sectors where the North has an advantage and the supporting business services activities that are needed to make such sectors as digital, advanced manufacturing, energy and health successful.  This is perhaps a narrow way of thinking about economic opportunity.  Research that we did for Manchester some while ago showed that growth opportunities emerge when elements of the supply chain get into problem solving together.  This is why growth, change and cities go together.  Making opportunities happen is about making connections and increasing the likelihood that the right people meet.

The Infrastructure Commission has proposed that a focus on the city centre connections between Leeds and Manchester has the most rapid payoff because they are the two biggest cities in the North and have the largest economies.  This route is already the most crowded, with standing rates nearly at London levels.  Such investment will increase the the seedcorn for growth.  But it won’t be enough.  Taking best advantage of any new opportunity means working to increase overall connectivity, including international access.  Every city needs better access to Manchester airport in particular – the only other two runway airport in the whole country with Heathrow.

The way HS2 is taken forward becomes crucial then to creating an effective ‘HS3’ – shorthand for high capacity and speedy east west connections in the North.  Linking HS2 to Liverpool and through to Manchester airport is one element.  Making best use of the links through Manchester Piccadilly from the airport and out to the East is another.  Making effective links for Sheffield is a third.  Sheffield is cut off from Manchester by poor links across the Pennines and needs a faster link to Leeds too.  Both of these are in the aspirations for TfN.

Connectivity is about more than city centre rail links.  It’s also about local access to city centres, and freight and road routes too.  The M62 is the only dual carriageway route from east to west within 200 miles.  It is over used, and average speeds of 20 miles an hour are quite common on some sections.  Hence the need to accelerate smart motorway investment on this route but also to investigate new Pennine crossings, including a new tunnel.  The Commission rightly supports this investigation.

Creating a Northern Powerhouse is not a matter of theory.  If theory were sufficient to create economic growth we would all be richer than we are.  It is a matter of creating opportunity.  Not all of these will be grasped, but they can’t be grasped if they don’t exist in the first place.  We cannot know how effective any particular piece of infrastructure will be, nor can we put these in place at some absolutely right time.  It has been suggested that putting in new links encouraged travel and it is true that new roads and rail links fill up – often more quickly than expected.  More trips in multiple directions are not necessarily a bad thing, if they make it possible to get better matching of people to jobs, create more linking of businesses to clients and suppliers, and, especially, generate new ideas.

The economy is not a zero sum game, but economic growth does not happen in a vacuum.  Although it is contingent of skills and on enterprise, no amount of skill will substitute for lack of access to markets, or an inability to get the skills to the workplace.  People will tend to give up and go elsewhere.  For the Northern cities to create effective competition to the South, they need to be as attractive, which means with accessibility to opportunity for partners and children as well as to quality homes and amenities.  The Infrastructure Commission report focuses on an important aspect of opportunity and the northern cities will need to grasp the others.  Devolution is an equally important aspect of that ability to implement a strategy and create the environment in which new investment can flourish.

Bridget Rosewell

Senior Adviser for Volterra Partners

Commissioner, National Infrastructure Commission

Image: Speed by Alberto Garcia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Share this post