To grow the north, first we must connect the north

What ‘boomerangers’ tell us about regional rebalancing

December 19, 2023
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Challenging times call for positive action. So says John Rayson, Managing Director of the Northern Transformation Programme at AtkinsRéalis. With an election on the horizon and a year of stalled growth likely, now is the time for the north of England to act, he says. “The next 12 months are going to be very testing.” If not quite a crisis, it is certainly an opportunity not to be wasted. “This is when you can make a difference. When the rest of the economy is stalling, that’s the time to lift up our area.” Regional rebalancing cannot wait for a benign economy.

Rayson has spent his career, which spans more than four decades, working on major infrastructure projects. Originally from the north and latterly returned there (his work has taken him to London and then overseas), Rayson is now AtkinsRéalis’s de facto champion of the area. As such, he is in regular contact with regional leaders. He is familiar, too, with the findings of the “Regional Rebalancing” research his company commissioned in the wake of the publication of the government’s “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” white paper in February 2022. The purpose of the research is to better understand the views of local decision-makers. 

Asked to identify his key takeaways, he names two: the need for connectivity and the varied understanding of what regional rebalancing means in practice. 

Effective connectivity

We’ll return to the latter in due course. On the former, he says: “We are hampered by an inability to connect the regions and sub-regions with effective travel options.” This, says Rayson, is more about moving from east to west (or west to east) than it is about moving north to south. “I know there’s been a lot of discussion around the [partially aborted] HS2 project but that was always more of a capacity issue anyway. East to west is about effective connectivity across the regions.” 

Everyone has their own anecdotal example of ineffective travel, and Rayson is no exception. Based in central Cheshire, a previous job took him to Leeds, a 65-mile journey that typically lasted three and a half hours door to door whether by car or by public transport. “To grow the economy, we’ve got to be able to connect those key economic clusters around Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.”

Another dimension of the transport challenge is a younger generation that is increasingly falling out of love with the car, accentuating the need for joined-up public transport. Effective transport infrastructure consists of two elements, says Rayson. “One is city centre connectivity, linking say Liverpool City region to Manchester Combined Authority to West Yorkshire Combined Authority.” 

The other is mass transit. Here regions should follow the “hub and spoke” model favoured by the aviation industry in which major airports across the globe feed local routes. “Get people into the city centres and then provide a light rail network to allow them to get out and around.” The Metrolink in Manchester is a good example of this model in action. “Leeds doesn’t have anything like that.”

The boomerang effect

Rayson’s focus on transport is reflected in the report, which identified five leading priorities occupying the minds of regional leaders. These are in order: transport, skills and the future of work, inward investment, health and wellbeing, and affordable housing. 

When it comes to skills, it is not a failure to retain graduates post-qualification that most concerns Rayson. Rather it is the struggle to persuade white-collar professionals beyond the age of 35 to stay. Faced with a lack of opportunities mid-career, “people are heading to London,” he says. 

There is a name for those who start their careers in the north before heading south and, finally, heading back near career end. They are the “boomerangers” and Rayson concedes he was one himself. But instead of being grateful that this cohort return eventually, how do you stop them leaving in the first place? The answer, says Rayson, brings us back to connectivity. By creating economic clusters—well-connected by transport infrastructure and featuring multiple thriving businesses—you widen the options of mid-career professionals looking for their next move. With greater choice and ease of access, there are fewer reasons to leave.

Fiscal powers to the people

When faced with such a varied but interlinked list of priorities, the challenge for local politicians is deciding where to start. Or perhaps more pertinently, working out how to address issues in tandem. According to the report, 96 per cent of regional leaders believe that a lack of a joined-up approach across central government departments makes it more difficult to deliver on objectives. 

The solution—or at least an important part of the solution—is fiscal devolution, says Rayson. “Fiscal powers allow people in region to focus on the right priorities in the right order.” While progress has been slow, the introduction of Trailblazer deals, following the levelling up white paper, is welcome. These deals promise more powers to England’s mayoral authorities. The Mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands—Andy Burnham and Andy Street, respectively—have both been invited to negotiate deeper devolution deals. 

Yet isn’t there a danger that fiscal devolution simply replaces a lack of joined-up thinking at central government level with disjointed thinking across regions? “It might be a danger with the wrong people in power,” says Rayson. “As things stand, metro mayors—irrespective of political party—are very well connected. They work very well together.”

The role of business

Regional rebalancing isn’t just a job for political leaders. Business has a key role to play, too. Rayson says regional firms should concentrate on two key goals. The first is “longer-term economic growth that goes beyond election timeframes”. For longer term read net zero projects. He identifies three northern clusters with an industrial heritage: the north west, Humber, and the north east. “These must be the catalyst for generating net zero energy production. Irrespective of whether it’s carbon capture, hydrogen, or another solution it’s all about developing technology at scale.”

The second area of focus, according to Rayson, is place-based regeneration. This puts communities at the heart of identifying—and helping deliver—local needs, social and economic. “If government provides the catalyst and the oversight, it’s then up to the private sector to regenerate these areas,” he says. In practical terms that means creating hubs—easily accessible via public transport—that feature leisure activities, supermarkets, and other essential facilities that meet local needs. 

Reasons for optimism

Future success for the north of England depends on clear-eyed strategic thinking. One problem: terminology. Both “regional rebalancing”—the report authors’ preferred term—and “levelling up”—the government’s default phrasing—remain open to interpretation. The challenge, argues Rayson, is to make sure people are on “the same page”. That means political leaders, local residents, and other active stakeholders. 

Here, as elsewhere, Rayson remains an optimist. He believes combined authorities are proving effective partners. Moreover, he believes the two main political parties are starting to “get it”, too. “Both parties now fully understand the importance to the regions of sustainable economic growth. Whoever is successful at the next election, there is going to be significant focus on regional rebalancing.”

Read our reports “Regional Rebalancing: Primary research into the challenges facing local decision-makers across the North of England” and “Next Generation: Is the future theirs for the taking?

The report was commissioned by AtkinsRéalis, Durham University, and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. It focused on four regions in the North: Teesside, West Yorkshire, Liverpool City Region, and an area characterised as “the M6 Corridor”, running from Crewe to Carlisle 

‘Regional Rebalancing: Primary research into the challenges facing local decision-makers across the North of England’ can be read here. The report was commissioned by AtkinsRéalis, Durham University, and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. It focused on four regions in the North: Teesside, West Yorkshire, Liverpool City Region, and an area characterised as ‘the M6 Corridor’, running from Crewe to Carlisle.