The Northern Powerhouse will not succeed without Lancashire – but the county’s potential contribution to the project is not being recognised.
That was the message from a director of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP), who warned that the area needs to be more vocal about what it has to offer.
Miranda Barker, who is also chair of the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, called for the county to set out its ambitions, such as becoming a “driving force” in advanced manufacturing – and then ensure the message is heard beyond Lancashire’s borders.
“We are always left out of the narrative in the Northern Powerhouse and are never seen to be at the forefront of it – yet, to be honest, it can’t be delivered without us,” Ms. Barker told a meeting of the growth body’s board.
“But we need to have a demonstrable aim to be reasonably engaged [in the process] and I think we need to be much more ambitious in terms of our goals.”
The brainchild of the Conservative former Chancellor, George Osbourne, the Northern Powerhouse aims to create better transport links between the North’s towns and cities – as well as encouraging investment and making the region more productive.
The county’s universities and the LEP itself do feature amidst a sea of logos on the Northern Powerhouse website. But on a page outlining more than a dozen key investment opportunities across the North of England, Lancashire is absent.
Board member Tony Attard, who chairs promotional organisation Marketing Lancashire, said it had been battle simply to get the county represented in Northern Powerhouse literature.
“One of the things that has driven me crazy over the past couple of years is how the Northern Powerhouse is [seen to be] Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool – Lancashire just hasn’t been mentioned. That is something which we’re working on to ensure it doesn’t continue to be the case,” he said.
Mr. Attard also said the LEP needed to do more to promote itself and gain recognition by creating an identifiable “brand”.
Lancashire County Council’s interim director of growth, Richard Kenny, acknowledged that there was some flexibility for the enterprise partnership to present its own image, even within the constraints of guidelines issued by government.
Interim LEP chair, David Taylor, suggested that there might be an even more simple solution.
“At a recent gathering for enterprise partnerships from across the country [some were wondering] why they are not better recognised, appreciated and respected on a national level. And it stuck me that one of the main reasons was because we don’t tell anybody what we’re doing,” he said.
NORTHERN POWERHOUSE NOT MAKING A MASSIVE DIFFERENCE'
For Michael Gibson, a director of community interest company, Digital Lancashire, it would be no great surprise if the Northern Powerhouse had initially focused on city conurbations rather than counties like Lancashire.
But he says that, in the tech sector at least, Lancashire’s less prominent position in the powerhouse concept has not had a detrimental effect.
“There is more research and development taking place here as a proportion of the number of businesses than there is in Manchester,” Michael explains.
“The most important thing about the Northern Powerhouse is that it raises the profile of the North and increases investment.”
In his role with Digital Lancashire - which aims to aims to support the tech sector in the county - Michael says he has seen innovative businesses creating specialisms in different parts of the county.
And he has high hopes that Chorley will join the likes of Lancaster and Burnley as digital hotspots when its Strawberry Fields development opens this summer.
“They say birds of a feather flock together and digital businesses tend to do just that. But we need to retain those companies here and help them to recruit and be a success.
“When businesses move away from Lancashire, it doesn’t always work out as they expected - sometimes they end up as a small fish in a big pond.”
But Michael warns that one thing the Northern Powerhouse must not do is allow current transport connectivity in Lancashire to deteriorate as a result of upgrades elsewhere.
“There must be no risk to the status of stations like Lancaster and Wigan on the West Coast Mainline as a result of HS2. Then, the Northern Powerhouse would be a failure.
“But often, the things that make the biggest difference - like Lancashire becoming the first digital skills partnership in the country - come from central government and are nothing to do with the Northern Powerhouse anyway.”
GOVERNMENT SEEKS "COHERENT VOICE" ACROSS THE NORTH
Rossendale and Darwen MP Jake Berry, who is the Northern Powerhouse minister, said he is "determined for Lancashire to be at the heart of a thriving Northern Powerhouse".
“The county’s fantastic contribution to the Northern Powerhouse was recognised by the Government on the last Lancashire Day," Mr. Berry added.
“The £434m Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal aims to create 20,000 new jobs and 17,000 new homes in the area.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that it is bringing together the eleven local enterprise partnerships spanning the North "to identify strategic priorities at the Northern level and provide a coherent voice representing private and public sectors".
It added that an updated Northern Powerhouse website will also be launched soon.
WHAT IS THE NORTHERN POWERHOUSE?
The term “Northern Powerhouse” was coined by the then Conservative chancellor George Osborne back in 2014.
He set out a vision for a revitalised Northern economy, based on science, innovation and, crucially, better transport links across the region.
There was speculation that the concept would be quietly dropped when Osborne departed Downing Street just two years after he laid out his plans, although the government later restated its commitment to them.
However, Osborne himself has been critical of a “lack of vision” for the project under Teresa May’s premiership and earlier this year called for special funds to be created for investment in rail, education and housing to benefit the North.
Since then, Transport for the North has approved a £39bn blueprint for a project called Northern Powerhouse Rail, designed to reduce journey times between the North’s key towns and cities. However, the benefits for Lancashire residents are unclear, with many of the mooted upgrades and new lines focussed on a corridor stretching from Liverpool to Hull.
The government’s own commitment to the project will only be signalled when the outcome of the comprehensive spending review - its medium-term financial plan - is known later this year. An estimated £13bn will be invested in Transport for the North between 2015 and 2020.
The ambitions for the Northern Powerhouse concept are now laid down in a strategy drawn up by the current chancellor, Philip Hammond, shortly after he took over the role from Osborne. According to that document, the government’s priorities remain connectivity, skills, trade, investment and innovation.