If UK plc is to maximise its competitiveness, then unlocking the potential of the north of England could be one of the key factors for success. This was the take away message from the Independent International Connectivity Commission report earlier this month when Chair John Cridland unveiled a series of recommendations designed to release the latent capability of the north’s airports and seaports by improving connectivity.
As Chair of the report and the wider Transport for the North movement, he said the UK public’s decision to leave the European Union has only increased the need to invest in better transport infrastructure in the north. The Brexit vote,” he explained, “means that now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to improve and expand our international connectivity in the north, and in doing so support maximising the potential of UK plc on the world stage.”
Under the wings of Concorde in a special facility at Manchester International Airport, fellow panel member and the venue’s chief executive, Tim Hawkins, pointed out that since the morning’s presentation had started “around 3,000 business trips were being started or completed above our heads right now.”
Air passengers using the north’s airports increased by 9.1 per cent over the last year, contributing some £5.5 billion to the north’s total GVA. If the UK is to become self-sustainable post-Brexit, the report says, it needs to nurture its northern assets. Cridland added: “Well there’s your proof of concept. The north has airport capacity for 60 million more passengers annually, yet only 4 per cent of air freight comes through the north.”
The alleged confines of the EU were one of the driving forces behind Brexit. It would be fitting, then, to explore new trading opportunities with partners further afield – the likes of Brazil, Chinaand India – but London’s centricity is actually a barrier to progress on this front. Mark Parsons, chief customer officer at DHL, and one of the Commission’s panel members who also contributed to the report, rued its findings that 50 per cent of long-haul passengers from the north have to take connecting flights internally. He said: “The north’s international connectivity is important for the UK as a whole. We’re talking about moving people, products and freight. If your transport of any of those things is going through multiple access points, then it becomes very inefficient and expensive. Whether it’s through aviation or through seaports, what we need to make sure is that foreign companies are able to trade as directly as possible with domestic companies, while cutting out the middle-man, in this case London. Whether as a tourist passenger or an international tradesperson, if you’re moving through multiple airports, then you run the risk of lost luggage, delays or myriad other problems.”
The solution to greater internationalism would appear simple: use the northern transport hubs more and the UK will welcome fresh economic growth where it needs it and open itself up to a plethora of pan-global partners. So if it is that simple, why was there any need for the report? “Strategy,” Cridland admitted, “has previously been disjointed. It’s up to us to change that ‘business as usual’ mentality and reap the benefits from doing so. This could mean an increase to national GVA by £97 billion and add 850,000 jobs.”
That all sounds great, but surely it can’t happen overnight? The report is realistic in its vision – international connectivity starts on the ground. “The challenge isn’t finding a great northern airport,” Cridland said, “because there are plenty. The challenge is in getting to one of the north’s great airports in the first place. We need more people within a 90-minute commute. The fact is that we don’t have the infrastructure available to link up Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and the other wonderful northern cities to each other. It means that each of these cities exists in their own little bubble, rather than what we want which is a more joined-up network of opportunities.”
London, by contrast, profits from a talent and trade pool that encompasses the Home Counties as well as a prioritisation from all other major cities elsewhere to be quickly connected to it. The same such fluidity, worryingly, does not extend to the north. But a tailored model along the same lines could be made to work there too. Another Commission member, Sarah Stewart, chief executive of the Newcastle Gateshead initiative, said that a failure to provide suitable infrastructure was denying the northerners the same opportunities afforded to their counterparts in the south. “There’s a two-way flow that’s been neglected. Our (the north’s) citizens need to have the same access to holidays, the same access to activities. Business and leisure actually need to be intertwined. On the flipside, when people visit the north, we need to make sure that they’ve got access to things beyond the airport. We have so much to offer in our architecture, or national parks, our cathedrals, our universities. The north must be open to visitors and open for business.”
The magnetism of the capital, meanwhile, pertains thanks to businesses basing themselves there and a commitment to tourism. While the north is already home to 16 million people and 7.2 million jobs, there is a clear latency, nay duty, to do more.