Can the government level up northern infrastructure?

The government makes much of its ‘levelling up’ ambitions for the north of England. However, critics think more is needed to address regional imbalances
Rishi Sunak And Jeremy Hunt Visit Lancashire And County Durham

‘Levelling up’ key infrastructure like transport is an essential pillar of the government’s domestic strategy, aimed at bridging the gulf between the north and the south. But is the hype justified?

Bolstered by its victories in ‘red wall’ northern seats, the government is attempting to redress the imbalance between the regions. And that imbalance is very real. In the five years to 2019/20, London received infrastructure investment at the equivalent of £12,147 per person, while their compatriots in the north received only £8,125. 

To provide a solution, the government has launched its levelling up white paper, which promises to spread opportunity and prosperity to all parts of the UK, including the north.

There will be 12 initiatives aimed at dragging Britain’s “forgotten communities” up to scratch in the coming decade. These will aim at shifting power out of Whitehall and into the hands of devolved local leaders, increasing domestic public investment in research and development by 40% in the regions, including the north. 

The goal is to improve everything from literacy levels to 5G broadband access and transport systems. At least, that’s what the government says.

Getting on their level

But is it going to work? “Basically, levelling up white paper: good,” says Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. “Treasury resolve? Less good. The idea of innovation deals focused on places like Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow is a great idea, but we need more of them, and they need to have more than £100m attached to them.” 

Murison thinks the previous government initiative that aimed to boost the north of England – the Northern Powerhouse, from which his organisation gets its name – was a stronger proposition that was likelier to succeed. It placed more control over spending at the regional level, while the levelling up agenda is largely controlled from London and includes cash for southern communities. 

“A key ambition of our levelling up agenda is to take decisive action to spread opportunity and improve connectivity between towns and cities across the midlands and the north,” says a government spokesperson. By 2030 the government hopes “local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services and simpler fares”, says the spokesperson, noting that £96bn will be invested in a rail construction strategy for the midlands and north that will be delivered over the coming 30 years. 

However, critics say this figure isn’t enough, and is too thinly spread across regions, rather than being focused on the north alone.

Mind the funding gap

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North think tank has analysed transport spending in the north and the south of England, finding a striking disparity between the two regions. Between 2009/10 and 2019/20, the north received just £349 per person in transport spending. That contrasts with an average of £430 per person across the UK and £864 per person in London. It’s a huge gap in infrastructure that has knock-on effects.

“In reality, the only thing that ‘levelled up’ since the Northern Powerhouse and levelling up rhetoric began is the transport investment gap,” says Arianna Giovannini, interim director of IPPR North. “This story is becoming far too familiar and prevents regions like the north from realising their potential.”

Northern investment experts are convinced the current plans aren’t enough. “It’s a start, but it is only the start,” says Murison. “It’s not the whole. It’s not enough to get us to where we need to get to.” 

Not everyone is convinced it’s the right strategy, either. Nicola Headlam is chief economist and head of public sector at Red Flag Alert, a business insights company based in Manchester. “The Integrated Rail Plan is not just the wrong plan,” she says, “it’s so wrong I can’t understand what they’re trying to achieve with it.”

That plan is a 161-page document commissioned by Grant Shapps, the secretary of state for transport. It would overhaul the East Coast Mainline and speed up journey times in the north of England and the midlands. 

However, critics think it’s a poor replacement for the eastern leg development of High Speed Rail 2 (HS2). This aimed to improve northern connectivity between Birmingham and Leeds but was cancelled in November 2021 amid great controversy. 

“It just feels like spite from the Grant Shapps/Department for Transport side to cancel the eastern leg and mess about with new lines,” says Headlam. “I just don’t understand why, because if levelling up is to mean anything, surely this is the time they could have been generous.”

Why northern infrastructure needs updating

Leeds is the biggest city in Europe with no form of mass transit system. The journey times to traverse some parts of the north take almost as long as travelling the length of the country from Newcastle to London on the East Coast Mainline. 

Such factors weigh heavily across the regional economy, in everything from productivity to the brain drain. “The main impact is that the economies of our cities are about half as strong as their equivalents in the rest of Europe,” says Tom Forth, chief technology officer and co-founder of Leeds-based data company The Data City, which works with government, analysts, investors and researchers. 

If you take an equivalent city in continental Europe and compare it with Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool, “you’ll find that the European city has better public transport, a much stronger economy that is then able to pay more tax, generate more revenue for the treasury, and is able to grow quicker,” Forth says.

England’s northern cities perform poorly when compared to their European and southern counterparts. “You can’t get into these major northern cities anywhere near as well as you can in their European comparison cities, or anywhere near as well as you can in London,” says Forth. That means the cities functionally become small places. “You don’t have the mass of workers you need to fill jobs,” Forth says. “It just slows everything down.”

The government has suggested some ways to bridge the gulf between the north and south. However, many believe the goals and spending are misguided and aimed at the wrong things. 

However, doing nothing isn’t an option. “It’d just be a continuation of what happens now,” says Forth. “London becomes more and more prosperous. More and more of the fastest-growing companies and best jobs are there. They will have to pay more and more tax to fund the weak economies of the UK.” 

This is a national concern, says Headlam. “The point is everyone suffers from a lack of investment in infrastructure.”