Connectivity brings the opportunity to link our regional towns and cities to each other and reshape the economic geography of the UK.
With Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds all within 45 minutes of Manchester, there is a real opportunity to offer a “super city” approach – an economic grouping that is comparable to London, and bigger than either Wales or Scotland. HS2 is seen as a game changer for the region, but if recent discussions are anything to go by, HS3 will be even more important. The Northern Powerhouse is forging a lead in terms of devolution, and when considering the scale of economic opportunity it is clear to see why, but how do we get ourselves into the best position to grab it?
Having attended a number of events in the last two months on the Northern Powerhouse topic, I have seen the leaders of the respective cities talk about the opportunity on a number of occasions. Leadership and collaboration of this initiative are paramount, and we are beginning to see a supportive network developing. However, is the inherent competition between our northern cities still a little too strong for true collaboration? It will take time for this to change and a lot of trust, but it is important to ensure each of our cities understands and agrees what its offer to the group is, and develops a strength in its individual proposition, for this trust to build. With this in place, I can then see a great opportunity for us to brand, trademark and really begin to drive the Northern region.
In terms of Manchester itself, leadership is already being discussed, with Sir Richard Leese most recently publicly removing himself from the running for Greater Manchester Mayor, stating that “Manchester needs an individual who is 20 years younger and female”. Change could well be a good thing for Manchester, but instead of age or gender we need to be looking for the individual who is best equipped to drive relations with the surrounding Local Authorities and secure a good collaborative base. In the city region, we are currently moving our way through the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework with publication due in autumn 2016.
Housing allocations are being divvied up across the Local Authorities, as to who takes what. But are these allocations based upon strong strategic thinking? Are we basing the locations for growth around the long-term economic and infrastructure opportunities Greater Manchester presents, or are we taking the path of least resistance? A good proportion of growth will be located within the city itself, but this housing only caters for a limited market, due to inherent city density which is less land hungry.
Manchester is a resilient and impressively established city, with the biggest economy in the UK outside of London. We have had strong leadership for a number of years, and have established some great innovative approaches outside of Westminster. ‘Manchester Place’, for example, is a huge step change in driving projects through the planning system, while still drawing on the expertise and funding capabilities of the HCA. As a city, we have our fingers in a lot of sectors and alternative engines of growth. We are good at driving innovative approaches to investment. The £300 million Housing Investment Fund and, more recently, the discussions around an intention to drive our own housing initiatives in parallel to central Government’s direction of travel, such as the re-energising of the social rental sector, are great examples of us having the ability to ask for what we want. Balancing such innovations with other strategic land releases is important. We also need to provide land for new employment and suburban housing for families. Creating a broad set of opportunities will be key for Northern super growth. This inevitably means looking towards the Green Belt in some capacity.
So, in summary, we surely need the Greater Manchester Strategic Framework to work if we are to stand any chance of the Northern Powerhouse working. If we can’t rally a limited group of Local Authorities together, how can we possibly collectively drive a multitude of cities and towns? I do think it is possible but perhaps the Mayoral leadership debate becomes ever more important in determining the outcome.
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