“For the Northern Powerhouse to work, we need to focus on our sectors of global distinctiveness,” Manchester City Council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein stressed during a panel debate alongside Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson. “This is an EU issue as well as a UK issue.”
Bernstein and Anderson were in conversation during the first event of a packed programme being delivered by the two city’s delegations in Cannes. While questions over the impact of a potential exit from the EU hung in the air, both stressed not only what the EU could do for the North, but what a powerful North could bring to the EU.
“The big question over the next decade is will East Asia or North America emerge as the lead economy,” asked Bernstein. “Either way, the EU role will reduce, and it’s important for the EU that there are places like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds which are driving growth. We’re seeing this in other parts such as Germany and Scandinavia also, which are exploring their cities’ strengths and synergies.
“In Europe, we need to articulate the Northern Powerhouse, and that means a clear message of what it is and what it isn’t.”
Bernstein stressed that the UK’s part in the EU was “incontrovertible” and called for “reform from within”, while Liverpool’s mayor suggested further debate was needed into what the country was getting out of its European membership.
Despite the announcement this week of £300m from government to explore options around high speed rail links and other east-west connectivity improvements, promoted by the newly created Transport for the North, neither Bernstein nor Anderson felt that the battle for transport investment in the North had been won.
“TfN as an organisation is now fully constituted, but we still have to look at all the options, and political leaders need to make sure that the key ambitions aren’t lost,” said Bernstein.
“We can’t have any more ‘fiddling around’ options, we need big interventions.”
Anderson agreed, describing past Government initiations as “a mindset of tinkering”.
“I’ve never been accused of a lack of ambition, but my ambition is not matched by the Government ambition.” Anderson said. “We don’t want to be held back by fear of being bold.”
While Government’s prioritisation of a high speed rail link from Birmingham to Manchester over better East-West connectivity has come under fire from many quarters, Bernstein stressed that it didn’t have to be an either/or debate.
“HS2 is essential to supporting long-term growth, while HS3 [from Manchester to Leeds] I’d say is about how we agglomerate Northern interests,” he said. “We need both, so we shouldn’t be distracted by southern interests, wanting us to waste time debating.”
Bernstein was clear about the symbiotic relationship between transport and regional growth.
“Without good transport, the Northern Powerhouse does not exist, and it’s the platform we can then build on. HS2 is not just one part of the link, but a new approach to the transport system, and shows how we can join up in a clear way.
“We need to make sure we’re ready, with Piccadilly station as the focus.”
Since MIPIM 2015, Manchester has continued its devolution negotiations with central Government, securing control of its £6bn health and social care budget, with power due to be fully devolved next week. How Manchester copes with its new responsibilities will be crucial to future successes, said Bernstein, who wants the city region to take control of its entire £22bn public spending.
“Manchester momentum will be unstoppable if we deliver on all of our health and social care aims, as we will have demonstrated beyond a doubt that it can only be delivered on a local level.
“However, while we’re arguing for more of the tools for growth, we need to also deliver on what we’ve already got, and do it will.
“I don’t think it’s a question about whether we will grow, but whether we’ll grow as much as we should.”