The Northern Powerhouse Conference 2020: A Review

The Northern Powerhouse Conference 2020: A Review

Qualis Developments attended the conference last week with high expectations that, after attending the last three events and listening to a lot of rhetoric about what could and should be done by cities in the north, this would be the one that finally gave us some timelines and decisions by senior figures on how the Powerhouse was moving forward.

Unfortunately, whilst there was a lot of optimism in the room, far more so than at the last event in Leeds, it still felt like the overwhelming message was ‘we need’ and not ‘we have’!

To say that the conference was a let-down would be doing a disservice to the organisers and speakers, as it wasn’t. Each and every topic was lively and engaging and delivered with a passion that only northerners can deliver.

Below is a roundup of some of the day’s topics:

In his opening keynote speech, in fact his inaugural speech in the position, Andrew Stephenson, Minister for HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Transpennine Route Upgrade, talked about the need to regain the public’s trust and that this was an opportunity to “redefine travel for Northern passengers”.

In all fairness, there does appear to be a lot of work in the pipeline for these projects; all pacer trains will be removed from service by May 2020 and there are plans to open many of the northern lines that are currently in disuse. One of the most important things that Stephenson commented on was that HS2 and Northern Rail are not either/or projects but plans that can (and will?) run concurrently. It will be interesting to see how the renamed HS3 project will play out over the next 12-18 months and if the smaller interconnecting routes will reopen, allowing greater connectivity between east and west.

HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail

Anoosh Chakelian (New Statesman’s Britain Editor), Steve Rotheram (Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region) and Councillor Nick Forbes (Leader of Newcastle City Council).

This panel discussion was one of the most engaging of the day. The three participants were keen to point out that the new transport plans are not just about trains, a misconception that appears to be common amongst most of the public. HS2 is a long-term, specific transport project, and the most important thing to look at is what we are doing in the short-term and locally. For example. a staggering 85% of all journeys in Liverpool are by bus and the needs of those commuters are not being considered. We need to look at active travel (i.e. cycling and walking) and integrate our public transport systems so that they are seamless and affordable, which they currently are not. Again, though an important question was raised surrounding bus companies and the fact they are private and we are subsidising them with no returns to the public or improvement in service, there was no answer as to how the city leaders are looking to change this. What plans are in place to force this issue and try and implement a more nationalised, or regionalised, service?

There are also major capacity issues at present – we need more freight routes to support trade, and more local connectivity between towns, not just the commuter routes between the major cities. It was extremely interesting to hear how the matrices that the government uses to measure viability and cost benefit analysis for projects are weighted towards the southern counties (i.e. they are based on land prices etc.). No surprise there! However, the M9 group of metro mayors are pushing to get the government to change this and use different benefits that aren’t weighted towards the south.

Clean Energy Growth: Powering the North

Jon Bernstein (Former Deputy Editor, New Statesman), Alan Woods (Director, Strategy and Business Development, SMR, Rolls Royce), Anna Round (Senior Research Fellow, IPPR), Lord Ravensdale (Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Energy), Peter Whitton (Vice Chair, The Carbon Capture and Storage Association) and Jamie Reed (Head of Corporate Affairs, Sellafield Ltd.).

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that, as a civilisation, we need to move away from fossil fuels and look to new, cleaner, sustainable energy sources. How, as a country, we work towards this goal is something that the north could be a leader in, by making use of existing industries and the supply chain networks that are already in place.

It was interesting to hear a continuing theme throughout the discussion – that as the north was previously a world leader in the Industrial Revolution, we could now be the leader of the Energy Revolution! All of the panellists agreed that we need to focus on skills – resources and upskilling local workforces that are already in place – and looking at ways to make renewables more cost effective.

A key question asked by Peter Whitton was, over the next 5 years, what are we in the north going to do? What is the plan? An Energy White Paper, due out any day now, is likely to suggest that we need clean energy hubs in all major industrial areas within the next 5-10 years. Energy underpins our entire economy; it’s not going to be easy to switch from fossil fuel sources and there isn’t a quick solution. For example, if everyone in the UK decided to go out tomorrow and buy an electric car, we simply don’t have the infrastructure in place to cope with the demand. We need to look at replacing gas with decarbonised hydrogen through Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), build on existing wind resources and, although it can be a contentious subject, look at how we can use Nuclear power effectively.

A particularly thought-provoking comment from the audience was “should we be looking at how to be more efficient in regard to how we use energy, rather than just finding ways to produce alternatives with the same capacity?”. He was of course correct, we should be looking at ways to reduce our over reliance on all energy sources and, whilst the panellists agreed with the point, it was clear that this is not part of the current remit in the path for clean energy growth.

Health for Wealth: Using the North’s health assets to level up the Northern Powerhouse Economy

Becky Slack (Managing Director, Slack Communications), Dame Jackie Daniel (CEO, Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust), Geoff Davison (Chief Executive, Bionow), Councillor Brenda Warrington, Leader of Tameside Council) and Dr Seamus O’Neill (CEO, The Northern Health Science Alliance).

A healthy population equals a healthy economy, yet only six percent of funding for health innovation is allocated to the North, and, whilst we have an incredibly successful life sciences industry, we also have a lower life expectancy than our southern counterparts – these were just two of the staggering statistics that were put forward by the panel, highlighting just a couple of the barriers that need to be overcome in order to level the health imbalance across the country.

Councillor Warrington elaborated on the Great North Care Record and how it is a fantastic example of the ability to manage resources across cities and town, and how data gathering can be a huge benefit, making it a massive asset that could be replicated across the country. One of the examples highlighted was their work with care homes; by providing them with a digital link to local hospitals and health care officials, they have managed to increase the number of elderly people being taken into hospital, as their care can now be managed on-site, therefore reducing the number of ambulances being called out and the number of beds in hospitals being taken up, reliving the pressure on the NHS.

The issues with our National Health Service are of course wide-reaching and not restricted to the north, we need to get people paid the right wages so that they feel valued and want to stay, instead of moving into private practices etc. However, the government needs to understand that asking for money for health care services is not a handout – it’s an investment for the future that will save taxpayers’ money down the line.

There were many more interesting presentations and discussions throughout the day, including a thoroughly absorbing address by Chi Owurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central and the Shadow Digital Minister & Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, on the practicalities of the Northern Powerhouse and how we need action from the government if it’s ever going to be anything more than a buzz word.

Robert Hough, Chairman of Peel Airports also gave some solid examples of how small amounts of investment at a local level can have a huge impact on a large number of people, i.e. the laying of an extra four miles of train track in Doncaster puts an additional nine million people within 90 minutes of the airport, opening up employment opportunities to a much larger pool of people.

So, is the Northern Powerhouse a vision for the future that will level out the economic and social imbalance in the UK or is it just a pipe dream, a buzz word that politicians reel out when they want to address northern audiences?

The UK is the most politically centralised country in the OECD and devolution is the key. But it has to be devolution in real terms. Currently, we have certain bits of decentralisation in Manchester and Liverpool but get given targets against it and strict rules on how and where the money can be spent, by people who have no idea how local councils and economies work. For it to truly work we need flexibility in how and where money is spent! But how is this ever going to move forward and gain momentum?

And that’s the crux of the issue! For the Northern Powerhouse to proceed as something more than just a concept or an ideal, it needs strong northern political figures and businesses to work together with local communities to lobby the government on the issues that truly matter.

We know what we need – devolution! It’s been the hot topic at the last three conferences, and every single panel discussion and speech this year made a point of bringing it up. Yet how are we actually trying to devolve powers from Whitehall? There will certainly be many city leaders behind the scenes working diligently to move things forward, particularly the M9 group of regionally elected mayors who have welcomed the announcement by the Chancellor ‘about plans for a White Paper on further devolution in England‘, yet this proposed White Paper wasn’t mentioned at the conference (a quick Google search after the event was more informative).

The quote of the day went to Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council, who said “cities in communist China have more power than cities in the UK”.

Thought provoking, isn’t it?

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