How England's regional powerhouses can compete globally, by David Marlow

A recent trip to Japan and China illustrated challenges facing government and local leadership teams in creating a Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine of genuine international gravitas and competitiveness.

I had the privilege of visiting Greater Tokyo (38m population), Greater Osaka/Kyoto (19m), Shanghai (24m) and Beijing (22m).

Now I absolutely accept 'size isn't everything'. But, if the 'Northern Powerhouse' and 'Midlands Engine' (both in the +/-10m population range if defined generously) are to play in this 'premier league' of world metropolises, they will certainly have to punch above their weight.

The foundations for this stepping up are highly problematic. Besides size and agglomeration benefits, all of the four Asian metros have extraordinary levels of connectivity. Journeys between Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield are currently each in the 40-50 minutes range at best, with Liverpool and Newcastle much further distant.

By contrast, the similar distances between Kyoto and Osaka, Yokohama and Tokyo can be bullet-trained in around 15 minutes at fares highly competitive to premium UK services.

In leadership and governance terms, there is negligible structure and capacity to support Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine decision-making. Indeed, the recent 'call for devo deals' from government produced ten, often competing, combined authority and/or metro-mayor propositions from Northern Powerhouse and seven from Midlands Engine consortia.

Perhaps paradoxically it is the National Infrastructure Commission and its implicit strategic planning remit that provides the Powerhouse, Engine, and indeed the London Mega-City Region (MCR), with the best opportunity of competing globally over medium and long terms.

With a 30 year perspective and five-yearly national infrastructure strategies, the Commission offers potential for new National Policy Statements that, at least physically, can make the Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine more coherent realities.

The Commission has been initially tasked to look at transport connectivity between northern cities, London's public transport infrastructure, energy resilience, and also the way UK approves and delivers major national infrastructure.

It is important the impending Spending Review gives the Commission powers, capacity, and considerable resource to commission major research on these issues. It would be useful if part of its remit was undertaken sub-nationally and designed to strengthen strategic planning understandings and capabilities at 'Powerhouse', 'Engine', MCR and perhaps other pan-regional levels.

One suspects the first Chair of the Commission, with both his national and decentralist credentials, will appreciate the desirability of a multi-level governance, strategic planning approach to delivering the Commission's purposes. Can, though, currently disparate Powerhouse, Engine and MCR leadership teams put together coherent propositions? Can the academic and professional planning communities convincingly support these propositions?

If they can, there is a lot government and 'devo-deal' advocates can learn from the Tokyo, Osaka and Shanghai's of this world. The counter-factual will be to recognise that Powerhouse and Engine constructs are not designed for the global 'premier league' at all...

David Marlow is chief executive of consultancy Third Life Economics

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