New report challenges government to devolve decision and spending powers to English regions, says expert

Out-Law News | 06 Aug 2014 | 11:19 am | 2 min. read

The UK government has backed a £15 billion package of radical transport improvements proposed by a consortium of five cities in the north of England.

In a speech in Manchester George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, said that long-term plans for a "Northern Powerhouse" would be published alongside this year's Autumn Statement. In the meantime, he welcomed the publication of the 'One North' 15-year plan by the cities of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield (19-page / 1.9MB PDF).

The report and new commitment comes shortly after the government commissioned high speed rail expert Sir David Higgins to report on the northern phase of the proposed HS2 national high speed rail link, to include options for a new 'HS3' trans-Pennine fast rail link. Higgins, who is the chair of HS2 delivery body HS2 Ltd, is due to deliver this report in October; one month after Mark Walport, the government's chief scientist, is due to respond to the chancellor's request for a major new science initiative in the north with global reach.

Transport law expert Patrick Twist of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that it was time for the government to invest in the economic infrastructure that the UK's regions so badly needed.

"The northern cities had already shown, with the planning of the Northern Hub, that co-operating to produce a strategic investment plan for the whole region could unlock £600 million of public funding for rail improvements," he said. "The launch of the One North report goes much further in putting a case for very substantial funds for road and rail investment across the north. Enhanced connectivity is widely recognised as integral to improved economic growth and to a geographic rebalancing of the economy. With the approach of a general election the report will inevitably be widely welcomed."

"The challenge will be to turn some of the ideas in the report into actual projects in a sensible timescale. The One North approach clearly raises again the challenge to parliament of how to devolve decision and spending powers to the English regions. Michael Heseltine's 'No Stone Unturned' report provided a cogent case, but it and other similar calls need to be acted upon if the regions are to have the degree of autonomy that will allow them to promote the economic transformation that is being looked for," he said.

The One North programme was drawn up by representatives of the north of England's five largest towns in order to "complement" plans for HS2, the proposed national high speed rail line connecting London with the West Midlands and then onwards to Manchester and Leeds. The £15bn, 15-year investment plan set out in the report includes new trains running on a 125mph trans-Pennine rail link to Newcastle, a better overall interconnected rail network and 150% more road capacity through extended managed motorways. The plans would also deliver improved access from regional cities to the ports and to Manchester Airport.

In a speech in June, Osborne set out plans to create an "economic powerhouse" in the north of England with stronger transport, creative and research links and more power to make its own economic decisions. At the time, he said that the northern cities were currently "individually strong, but collectively not strong enough". However, if action was taken to build better economic connections between them then "combined they could take on the world", he said.

Responding to the One North report, the chancellor said that the government would commit new money, new infrastructure, new transport and new science to the cities as well as "real new civic power" including responsibilities for cities with elected mayors. These plans would be the "centrepiece" of the Autumn Statement and "part of our long term economic plan for the country", he said.

He added that Treasury analysis showed that if the northern economy grew in line with that of the rest of the UK over the next 18 years compared to the previous 18 years, the plans would be worth an additional £44bn to the economy or £1,600 for each person living in the region.