The Northern Powerhouse was George Osborne's pet project. Photo: DIRK WAEM/Belga/PA Images

The Northern Powerhouse problem

How to solve regional imbalances?
August 15, 2018

Big projects invite big political talk. The “Northern Powerhouse” is no exception. An idea invented by George Osborne, it was a project born of the fifty thousand feet perspective of No 11 Downing Street. You can almost imagine the former Chancellor pointing at his map of the UK: “we’ve got lots of economic activity here,” points to central London, “but we need to move some of it up here,” points to Barrow-in-Furness.

But does it really work like that? That’s a question that goes ignored by the politicians who promote the idea of “rebalancing” Britain. All countries have regional imbalances and it’s not immediately clear whether any other country has succeeded in getting rid of them by laying new railway lines. France, for example, has got stupendously fast trains and has had them for decades. But it hasn’t stopped huge swathes of la France profondefrom becoming backwaters. Italy, the United States—in fact think of any country and you’ll find it infested with regional imbalances. Why should Britain be able to find a solution that has eluded all other nations?

And yet government is spending a huge pile of money on new infrastructure, the bulk of it, as is made clear above, on transport. It’s no doubt a crucial question, as our special supplement shows. Commuters certainly like new trains.

But they also hate it when trains go awry, as happened with the failed introduction of new timetables across the north. That bungled effort doesn’t bode well for larger projects like HS2, which as Chris Grayling says, will cost £55.7bn. But what will it do? Shave 20 or so minutes off train times from the Midlands into London? People who like the idea say it will encourage investment in the north. People who don’t like it say it’ll simply create a new class of super-commuter—it’ll make London more accessible.

Truth is, nobody knows. Much of Britain’s transport infrastructure is looking tired. Better trains are a good thing, but won’t necessarily get people out of London. And besides, people are already leaving London—336,000 went in 2017. Their top destination was Birmingham. They didn’t need HS2 or the Northern Powerhouse to get them there. The real question is, now they’re there, what do they need? The answer to that needs no big political branding exercise—just competence.

Read more on the Northern Powerhouse here