It is a tribute to the political skills of the Chancellor George Osborne that his idea of a “Northern Powerhouse” is so much more than a castle in the air.
Manchester, the city on which it is centred, is not a Tory-friendly place. There has only been one Conservative on the 96-member city council in 18 years, and that was when a Lib Dem member switched. At present there are 95 Labour councillors and one independent Labour.
To compound that problem, Greater Manchester consists of not one but nine councils, none of them Tory run. Local authorities are notorious for their reluctance to co-operate with their neighbours, even when they are controlled by the same party, because each council leader has a separate empire to guard.
But in an impressive display of cross-party and inter-council co-operation, the leaders of all the councils in Greater Manchester struck a deal with the Chancellor that put the interests of the region above party politics and local rivalry. If Manchester now overtakes Birmingham as England’s second city, it is because civic leaders in the North-west showed more imagination than their West Midlands counterparts.
The deal means that Greater Manchester will have a directly elected mayor with authority over the police, the NHS, public transport, housing and strategic planning. The mayor’s housing investment budget will be £300m; the skills and training budget will be £500m a year. It is a very good deal for Manchester.
But the obvious caveat is why only Manchester? There is not much on offer for other Northern cities, some of whose needs are greater than Manchester’s.
The Chancellor announced some detail yesterday about HS3, the high-speed rail link that will cut journey times between Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull. This would be of more use to most of the cities on that list than HS2, currently the biggest construction project on the Government’s books, which will eventually link Manchester and Leeds by high-speed rail to Birmingham and London. But we do not know when HS3 is likely to be up and running. HS2 is not due for completion until 2032, so HS3 must be a very long way in the future, if it is constructed at all. It will also be very expensive. Who can say that a future government struggling with an economic downturn will not scrap it?
Meanwhile, people living in Carlisle or Leeds or Sunderland could reasonably ask what Mr Osborne’s vision of the Northern Powerhouse offers them. The answer is not very much, and that is regrettable.
It has been suggested that there is a personal calculation behind this favouring of Manchester. The wealth it brings to that city will spread out into the surrounding countryside – for instance into the parliamentary constituency of Tatton, in Cheshire, immediately south of Manchester airport, which is one of the few safe Tory seats in the North, and where the local MP is George Osborne.
Obviously, that adds to the attraction of the whole project in the eyes of a highly political and very calculating Chancellor, but there appears to be another calculation at work here. It is that the way to reduce the concentration of wealth in London is to pick one other city and build it up into a major economic zone with world-class transport links. Spreading the benefits more thinly would allow Northern cities to compete with one another, but none could begin to compete with London.
If that is the plan, perhaps Mr Osborne should be more open about his intentions. He could call his project Powerhouse Manchester. On the other hand, if he really wants to close the country’s notorious North-South divide, then every region outside the South-east should get the Manchester treatment.Reuse content