Infrastructure investment fundamental to drive future economic fortunes
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Steve Gillingham sums up why the North is crying out for large-scale infrastructure investment to link its great cities and the prize that constructing its connectivity will deliver.
“If I want to put staff on a project in Sheffield from Manchester, some 35 miles apart, I’ve probably got to relocate them,” he said. “Commuting isn’t feasible.”
Gillingham is head of international consultancy and construction company Mace’s northern operations and sits on the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.
He said improving commuting times between places like Bradford and Leeds is fundamental to the future economic fortunes of the North of England.
Investment is long overdue. “The fact is we are still reliant on what were Victorian infrastructure projects,” he added.
Transport for the North (TfN) is looking to change that. England’s first sub-national transport authority has a long-term vision for the region’s railways which will see a rolling programme of investment through to 2050.
Campaigners say it has the potential to create 850,000 additional jobs and add an additional £100 billion to the UK’s economy.
The vision is Northern Powerhouse Rail network linking the region’s six major city regions and its largest airport with faster, more frequent high capacity services.
Other major infrastructure projects being considered include the construction of a trans-Pennine road tunnel.
Major investment will be needed. A report on how to finance and fund the Northern Powerhouse issued by The Institute for Public Policy Research think tank and Squire Patton Boggs last year highlighted the challenge.
Analysis of the national infrastructure pipeline showed that 35% of total infrastructure spending and 54% of all transport infrastructure spending in the UK taking place in London.
Gillingham describes TfN’s statutory status, gained in April, as a “trigger point”. However, unlike Transport for London, it does not have the ability to generate its own income.
That needs to change, Gillingham said, adding: “What they need now is control over the budget. They still need to persuade government about that budget coming north.”
It is a point taken up by Andrew Herring, partner at Squire Patton Boggs. He said: “In the past the talk has been about investing in infrastructure to kick-start the post industrial economy.
“Now it’s about trying to get the infrastructure to keep up with the growth that is already there. It is a different argument. It is increasingly about ‘how do we deal with success?’
“The really significant thing is how you put some funding power behind these increasingly devolved institutions we have.
“Transport for London has got very significant powers to raise its own money. It can define and deliver the projects it needs to support London’s growth. And that isn’t yet the case for Transport for the North, for example.”
Giles Taylor, head of property and construction in the North of England at KPMG, sums it up when he said: “You can’t have a successful Northern Powerhouse without successful Northern transport.”
Plans to invest in improving North-South connectivity are moving forward, with the HS2 rail plan firmly on the drawing board.
And that is already having an impact. Gillingham added: “We are starting to see masterplans around hub stations such as Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.
“There are no cranes in the sky yet but people are investing money into putting these plans together.”
Gillingham also pointed to some what he calls “out of the box” infrastructure development ideas. They include proposals to create a series of free ports across the North.
A recent report says that “supercharged” free ports, offering relief from customs and import tariffs together with enterprise zones that have tax incentives to boost investment, could deliver a multi-billion pound boost to the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs.
To make that vision a reality would require more large-scale investment but Gillingham believes it could be another real opportunity in a post-Brexit world.
“It’s great having all these ideas,” he added. “We need to see some of these projects coming forward so that companies can make the investment in people and skills.”