Making the Northern Powerhouse into more than a slogan can be done faster than you think...
Recently, a London cabbie told me he'd never travelled to any northern city: "What are they like?" he asked, disarmingly simple, before adding "I suppose they're just like London." I said: "They're great, but if you combined the city centres of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, you might have the retail and commercial square footage of, say, Knightsbridge, Kensington and Chelsea (maybe extending to Fulham). Forget about the West End, Mayfair or the City".
In truth, our wonderful capital city - and there's no irony intended - is of a different order of magnitude to all but a handful of mega-cities worldwide. It is the UK's greatest asset and yet the economic and social disconnect between London and the rest of us is widening daily. The structural economic imbalance that causes needs to be addressed not by diminishing London but by building up the north of England (Britain). Hence the Northern Powerhouse. City Growth Deals and greater devolution of powers help, but the real prize for the North is not to make the northern cities autonomous, and more about making them functionally interdependent.
The leaders of our great cities are so conditioned by the economic dominance of London that their default position is always to improve North-South connectivity when in fact, the northern cities need to demand that the new executive agencies of the Powerhouse, namely Transport for the North and the National Infrastructure Commission deliver East-West connectivity not through incremental improvements to Victorian infrastructure but through radical investment in twenty first century options.
Anybody who travelled to World Expo Shanghai in 2010 will have seen and maybe ridden the Siemens Transrapid from Pudong to Shanghai Central covering the 30 km stretch in 7 minutes 20 seconds www.smtdc.com That's been in service continuously since 2004. Variations of Maglev technology are now working in Japan and a 500 kph maglev will link Tokyo and Nagoya (roughly equivalent to Manchester to Euston) in just 40 minutes by 2027. Meanwhile, in the States, Hyperloop One are preparing to put vehicles driven by linear induction motors and air compressors into reduced-pressure tubes capable of achieving speeds of almost 1,000 kph and even faster www.hyperloopone.com
Liverpool to Manchester was the world's first purpose built passenger railway, authorised by Act of Parliament in 1826. By 1832 it was a journey of 1 hour and 45 minutes and it can take almost as long today: it's pathetic. Direct City Networks plc, a consortium operating out of London's famous Gherkin, has prepared a case for TfN suggesting that a mainly-underground Maglev, operating at normal air pressures, could link Liverpool and Manchester in only 7 minutes and Manchester to Leeds in around 9 minutes. The North should demand the kind of technology needed to turn Manchester/Liverpool/Leeds/Hull into a single labour market and we might then see a Northern Powerhouse worthy of that grandiose slogan.