The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Trains, ports and friends up North

22nd March 2015

Shelagh McNerney on why the North needs more, and is ready for more, from central government

In 2015, ResPublica’s work to rethink and reconfigure the case for high-speed rail infrastructure into the great City of Liverpool encompasses transport, planning, economics and many aspects of public and social policy. Liverpool’s future prosperity is essential to the Northern Powerhouse. Quite simply, through its Port, Liverpool is the North’s global gateway.

The economic foundation of cities is trade. Liverpool, its port and its logistics footprint serve the largest cargo-generating region outside of London. The City’s purpose is about connectivity and always has been. Northern cities are agreed that connectivity and capacity between them needs to undergo transformational change. They have been discussing this for some time and working up mutually supportive plans.

As our economy restructures and adapts to enormous forces of change, we all want to build something positive that has lasting value for places and people. The importance of our cities for economic growth, social support and cultural nourishment is increasingly recognised. We also have our distinctive histories and identities wrapped up in cities. Scousers, Mancunians and across to Yorkshire and Humberside communities all understand instinctively what a Northern Powerhouse is. We invented it!

What we need and want is investment in the 21st-century drivers of economic progress leading to jobs. We need new east-west high-speed rail connections and other infrastructure  between our ports and cities and markets. The cities of the north have been adapting to change for decades, competing with each other for  the attention of investors , learning to collaborate and restructuring how they operate. Different cities have adapted in different ways and yet economic prosperity and social transformation are still our common and unmet goals. From Liverpool to Hull, it is understood that the full impact of transformative visions and game changing initiatives will only be achieved over time. Devolution, new institutions for the North and the setting of priorities are all underway and there is much to get on with.

Politicians, economists, planners, architects and builders have been working collaboratively for a long time in the North to generate our own ideas to spur growth. We have sophisticated and informed plans. We just don’t always communicate them or join them together across disciplines and professions,  nor across the cities themselves. The need for transport investment across the North highlights this possibly more than any other economic driver and there is a great opportunity for northern cities to now work together in a new collaboration.

Transport in the Budget 2015

The Budget 2015 makes a high-profile commitment to the Northern Powerhouse but is light on content and detail.

The importance of investment in infrastructure to the future prosperity of the country and the North in particular is mentioned but is by no means the powerful and driving theme it should be.

The enormous importance of investment in transport, especially in the North, is only referred to with regard to the imminent publication of the Transport for the North draft strategy document – a plan that will not be finalized until March 2016. It does state the figure of £13 billion for this programme and this is to be welcomed but we are ‘shovel ready’ and want to get on with it. It is disappointing that there is no mention of the content of this programme, given all the work that northern cities have prepared.

The section on the “Government’s Plan” mentions infrastructure in passing only:

creating more jobs by backing small business and enterprise with better infrastructure, lower job taxes and a long-term industrial strategy

New schemes and projects to support a Northern Powerhouse are described in the Budget Report as:


  • the creation of Transport for the North (TfN), which will draw up a comprehensive Northern Transport Strategy. TfN will shortly publish an interim report, committing to build on the concept of HS3 to develop a network of high quality rail connections across the north – the TransNorth vision;


  • bring the benefits of HS2 to the north sooner than planned; and work towards a single smart and integrated ticketing system across the region.


  • proceed with electrification of the Selby to Hull line, subject to an acceptable contribution from Hull Trains and a business case, to complete the full electrification of the historic trade route between Liverpool and Hull.

The Budget Report specifically mentions that it is committed to:

build on the concept of HS3 to develop a network of high quality rail connections across the north – the TransNorth vision.

Furthermore it says this will:

bring the benefits of HS2 to the north sooner than planned; and work towards a single smart and integrated ticketing system across the region.

This is as much as it says.

There was barely any mention of Liverpool in any context. The role of trade within the Northern Powerhouse through its ports and logistics function wasn’t mentioned either.  Liverpool’s economic footprint continues to be underestimated.

There are surprising strengths in the North and these are not just the story of Manchester, even though that is a story of enormous dedication and intelligent planning coming to fruition.

The world over, really productive and innovative economies are underpinned by trade.  If insularity is the enemy then the UK as a trading nation has friends up north. Liverpool has a new £300 million port opening to the world’s biggest ships this year. With 90% of deep-sea container traffic still arriving on our island through southern ports and clogging up roads in the South,  it is vital to realise that 50% of the markets for that traffic are closer to Liverpool.

The city needs to be connected through transport investment in high-speed rail in particular – it needs to be allowed to grow, to become denser and to finally overcome the past self-defeating dispersal of its population and business communities.

The real contribution of Northern Cities to the UK economy is at last on the agenda.

The spirit and drive of the ideas now being generated for radical restructuring of local economies needs the North’s Victorian infrastructure replaced, not just tinkered with. Liverpool’s distinctive trading infrastructure is being revolutionised with the post-Panamax Port facility coming online this year, and yet the city is invisible in Westminster’s perceptions of the Northern Powerhouse. The Northern Powerhouse needs to be understood as the whole of the North and its myriad of roles and economic contributions – not just knowledge and ideas but also action and trade.

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