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Northern Powerhouse: Reigniting the Furnace

James Crawley from natural and built asset design & consultancy firm EC Harris, part of Arcadis, told UK Construction Media he sees an opportunity for infrastructure investment to be a stimulus to drive economic growth.

The ambition to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will undoubtedly be welcomed by the construction industry, which has for some time recognised the significant scale of opportunities that the north has to offer.

This is not only a game changing moment for the north but is also a once in a generation opportunity that, if done well, will have a significant impact on UK business and the economy as a whole.

Across the UK, in the order of £100Bn is reportedly planned for investment in large infrastructure projects and programmes across both public and private sectors during the next decade and beyond. This will include supporting much needed and overdue projects such as HS2 and HS3, plans for which were backed by Prime Minister David Cameron last year and which promise to bring regions and cities closer together.

Investment that brings growth and jobs is why Chancellor George Osborne has placed such importance on regional renewal – particularly in the north.

However, it’s not just greater financial benefits and additional votes that a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will deliver. Devolution was the key word at the heart of the Government’s first legislative programme following the General Election. As outlined in the Queen’s Speech, a number of the bills will deliver more powers to the regions.

Significantly, cities that choose to appoint directly-elected mayors will gain more control over their own housing, transport and planning policies – a move which should help to ensure that new infrastructure projects are more closely overseen and influenced by the relevant local communities.

Greater Manchester is arguably leading the way towards the creation of the Government’s proposed Northern Powerhouse and the city is now set to be an exciting blueprint for the rest of the UK, with powers being given over housing, transport and health, and more currently under discussion

Powerful city regions such as West Yorkshire will doubtless be watching Greater Manchester’s next moves with a close eye. With Leeds at its heart as the UK’s largest financial centre outside London and hosting the largest workforce in northern England, new investment and greater autonomy would enable the city to both enjoy increased access to growth opportunities and allow it to play a greater role in further stimulating the UK’s much needed return to economic prosperity.

However, the assets and positions of strength that areas like Manchester and Leeds possess aren’t found within all UK towns and cities and this is a problem that cannot simply be solved by devolution and investment in infrastructure alone.

Infrastructure is the first movement towards economic development. Although it is positive that steps are being taken, consideration needs to be given to local markets where in many cases development viability remains marginal and how infrastructure can be best used to stimulate long-term economic growth in these locations.

One of the challenges is that by its very nature, infrastructure delivery takes time. The Government’s decision to make this investment in infrastructure will have been made in the expectation of some tangible economic outputs being delivered in the short to medium term.

Early successes will need to be demonstrated in order to provide confidence that this approach continues to be the right one.

To do this, some of these viability challenges will need to be overcome, and quickly.

Additionally, a serious concern is whether elsewhere in the north, those areas that choose not to elect a mayor find themselves severely disadvantaged with a reduced prospect of new infrastructure projects. Furthermore, with increased numbers of stakeholders and regional autonomy, it has not been made clear how each area will work with national agencies while ensuring all voices are engaged and heard equally.

Nevertheless, these are exciting times for the regions and a significant opportunity to ask ourselves what sort of infrastructure is required and how we can seek to influence long-term planning, in particular regarding HS2 and HS3.

We have a fantastic opportunity to use this infrastructure investment as a stimulus to create investible propositions for people living, working and investing in the north and thereby delivering positive change and lasting benefits. Long may it continue.