In Greater Manchester and the North (which we now have to call the Northern Powerhouse) new investment is coming. New transport minister, Patrick McLoughlin, has confirmed that HS2 (the Y shaped high speed railway with its foot in London and its tops in Manchester and Leeds) will be built (price tag at least £50Bn). The M62 trans-Pennine motorway will be “upgraded”, and links to Manchester International Airport will be made quicker. And the antiquated rail links Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds-Hull will be improved. This goes with a huge further investment in the airport; at £1Bn, that’s fifty times the money being spend on cycling infrastructure in the region, and equivalent to two thirds of the entire Greater Manchester Transport Development Fund.
“Open Veins” was a metaphor used by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to capture the plunder of his continent by the empires of Europe and North America1. Among many memorable pearls was the observation that South America’s transport infrastructure (as today we must call roads and railways) pretty all much ran from centres of production to the ports, thereby facilitating the haemorrhage of wealth. Could something similar happen here?
We’ve commented before on the flawed policy of airport expansion, locking the city into aviation dependency and scuppering our efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions. Here we question the direction being taken for infrastructure investment in the region. We’ve also suggested that the huge sums involved could be better spent. Deciding in advance that transport infrastructure is the answer to our regional economy’s problems tends to lock analysis into a path-dependent trajectory that ends with … big transport infrastructure projects.
What we do know is that investing in high speed rail and airports is not the solution to a broken, unbalanced economy. Professor John Tomaney’s evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport concluded that
“… it is very difficult to substantiate the argument that high speed rail is likely to have a positive impact on regional inequalities. Cities which are the location of HSR stations may gain some benefits, but distribution of net benefits needs careful analysis. Some of the benefits accruing to regional cities may be at the expense of neighbouring places, while in countries with dominant capital cities net benefits tend to accrue to these.
“Looking at the UK situation in more detail, the report examines those arguments which suggest that other kinds of transport investment may make a bigger contribution to the objective of regional rebalancing than HS2, particularly those which improve inter-city connections between cities and regions outside London and the South East.”
Open veins indeed. That argument, however, seems to support the case for the improved links between Northern cities, known as HS3. Here we need to distinguish between the need for better links than the current slow and overcrowded, diesel, multiple unit “bog car” (as train enthusiasts used to call them) links we have at the moment, and the trophy project of High Speed rail. There is a theory behind the move to high speed connections and motorway “improvements” across the north: “agglomeration economics”. We explained this before:
“The theory of agglomeration; attracting skilled workers, the ‘creative class’ and creating the conditions for investment through focusing on infrastructure and promotion of the city as an attractive location, is the expression in regional economic development of failed neoliberal economics. It minimises public intervention in the operations of the market and economy and suggests that only supply side interventions are permissible.”
As Professor Karel Williams of Manchester Business School notes, however,
“The academic evidence on city size and growth rates is ambiguous because there are many complexities; agglomeration itself is a mysterious and alchemical process between underspecified variables……
“It would be sensible to turn away from seminar room conjecture to the specifics about London’s economic success and the north’s supposed failure. This contrast is certainly demonstrated if we look at standard measures such as relative output (or GVA), which show London drawing away. But much of that widening gap is caused by specific factors which operate in London and cannot easily be replicated in the north.”
Those specific factors lie in the special case of London’s financial sector in that de-regulated and globalised neoliberal concrete dsytopia called “financialisation”.
But, what might an alternative programme for investment look like? We set out the principles for this once before. But broadly we would want to prioritise investments that:
Reduce rather than increase ecological damage, including via greenhouse gas emissions.
Make the region relatively more economically self-sufficient and resilient (which doesn’t mean “glorious isolation”, but a rebalancing).
Provide quick benefit in terms of sustainable livelihoods and quality of life – public sector affordable housing and energy demand reduction (e.g. via greatly enhanced insulation) are known to meet these criteria. Food production is also a priority in terms of resilience to global shocks to our dependency on long, global supply chains in an uncertain and warming world.
Enhance public health (hence the need to learn from other cities on what serious sustainable city transport involves).
Prioritise the social infrastructure more than the hard physical infrastructure.
Restore and protect our soils and water – for example via ambitious upland conversation schemes, redesign of our sewage (a fine resource!) and water management systems, and sustainable woodland management.
Realistically, given the election result, there seems little chance of a turn-around in the failed neoliberal-agglomeration-trophy investment strategy in the short term, but city-regional devolution, despite the undemocratic nature of the DevoManc model, does potentially offer some spaces for articulating and promoting sane alternatives, shifting the balance of investment and pioneering alternative approaches.
Mark H Burton
1 Galeano, E. (1998). Open Veins of Latin America: five centuries of the pillage of a continent. London: Latin American Bureau.