NORTHERN English cities could be offered “serious devolution of powers and budgets” plus a new high-speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds in an attempt to help the north of England keep pace with rapid development in London.
The offer came as Chancellor George Osborne set out his vision of an economic “powerhouse” in the north of England, featuring improved road links and investment in science.
New powers would come with the introduction of mayors with similar powers to those held by Boris Johnson in the UK capital. Elected mayors were rejected in referendums in a number of northern cities in 2012, but Mr Osborne made clear that he was ready to offer a bigger “carrot” in terms of local decision-making power to tempt the cities to reconsider their opposition.
The combined economic and creative energies of cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull could compete on a global scale, just as the stars of their Premier League football sides could “wipe the floor with any competition” if they came together in one team, said the Chancellor.
Bringing the cities of the north together could create a second “global city” for the UK.
Speaking at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Technology, Mr Osborne noted that within 40 miles’ commuting distance of the venue are cities that are home to a total of 10 million people – more than Tokyo, London or New York.
But it is quicker to travel by train from London to Paris than to cross half the distance between Liverpool and Hull, and quicker to drive from Southampton to Oxford than to cover a journey half as long between Manchester and Sheffield.
“The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough,” said Mr Osborne. “The whole is less than the sum of its parts.
“So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that’s not healthy for our economy. It’s not good for our country.
“We need a northern powerhouse, too. Not one city, but a collection of northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that, combined, they can take on the world.”
Mr Osborne said he was willing to “back up” a third high-speed rail line with Government money, but declined to put a figure on any investment, telling the BBC Breakfast programme that the project could come in at around £6-7 billion if priced at the same cost per mile as HS2, but was likely to work out cheaper because it would be able to use existing rail corridors.
Adam Marshall, executive director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “We would like to see more thought given towards connecting all the core cities in the north, not just Manchester and Leeds.
“While the Chancellor’s ambition for a Northern ‘HS3’ is positive, the government must focus on getting HS2 on the statute books and into construction first.”