In the latest instalment of Insider’s Q&A series on the Northern Powerhouse, Jeremy Orrell, Chief Executive and Head of the Corporate team at law firm SAS Daniels LLP, outlines what the initiative means to him, the improvements required to boost public transport, and the need to reduce the timescales for infrastructure projects.
What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
It still feels like a lobbying project to boost the economy in the North – it has good intentions but not enough clout or resource. Improvements have been made but progress has been too slow. There remains a systemic North/South divide and inequality.
Six years have passed since the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was first coined. Has enough happened since then?
Not enough has happened; it has been disappointing. This is not due to the lack of effort from any of the individuals involved. They are doing a great job in their own right and within the parameters they’re working, but it still doesn’t feel like an entirely joined-up approach.
Individuals are doing their best within a centralised governmental system which has always pointed to London. Unlike many other countries, we don’t have strong local regions and governments with autonomy and wide-ranging decision-making powers. This is the fundamental issue with the Northern Powerhouse. There is still a huge disparity between public spending in the capital and spending in the North. Until this gap is addressed, the impact of the Northern Powerhouse will be limited.
There is no doubt that improvements have been made; the arrival of MediaCity, for example, but overall, not enough has happened.
How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?
Metro mayors have helped raise the profile of northern regions and generated lots of positive PR. However, they don’t have enough governmental power and resource and, as a result, there are limitations as to what they can achieve.
What needs to be done to help the North recover from the Covid-19 outbreak?
Reducing the timescales for infrastructure projects. Decision making remains too protracted, and projects generally happen far too slowly in this country. HS2 is a prime example – millions have been spent acquiring land and yet there is still a feeling that it may not even happen. The project was proposed back in 2009 and the target date for the final section is not until 2035. Every project appears to take an inordinate period of time held back by a byzantine procurement and planning process.
What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?
Transport. The North is desperate for improvements to infrastructure. Our public transport system is grossly inadequate and as a result, people rely on their cars for their daily commute. There are too many promises that aren’t being delivered. Improving the 40 mile stretch between Manchester and Liverpool is long overdue. We have a number of people working between our offices in Chester and Stockport and each has a train station in walking distance, yet I’ve never known anyone use it. It should be the obvious choice, but the lack of investment means it’s expensive and slow.
Is there enough collaboration between towns and cities across the North?
Collaboration is fundamentally constrained. Whilst they have a common goal, Liverpool and Manchester are still, ultimately, in competition with each other to attract projects and investment. It’s like asking Manchester United and Liverpool Football Club to share players. It isn’t going to happen.
How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?
Improvements to infrastructure and public transport would make a big difference in helping to connect our four offices, allowing for easier and shorter commutes for our people. It would also help attract and retain talent in the North.