Driving power north

BUSINESS VIEW: SMEs want greater investment in regional infrastructure. Bibby Financial Services' UK chief executive Edward Winterton says the government must push its Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine projects harder.
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THE LOCATION of key infrastructure projects has been a bone of contention within many UK governments – and Theresa May’s is no different.

In August, we saw former Chancellor George Osborne call on the prime minister to back his Northern Powerhouse project and increase infrastructure spending in the north of England.

More specifically, Osborne is calling for better rail connections – an issue somewhat brought to the forefront of the infrastructure debate when Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, recently noted: “It takes four minutes longer to travel by train from Manchester to Chester than it did in 1962.”

It was music to our ears when the Northern Powerhouse initiative was announced by the Cameron-Osborne government in 2015. We are extremely passionate about the UK’s regions and welcomed the plans. Better connections between Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool can only result in a positive outcome for the UK.

Northern England and the Midlands are too often overlooked when it comes to investment in infrastructure. The fact we still have Pacer trains from the 1980s grinding their way into stations throughout the cities of the north, should be enough to highlight the sub-standard transport infrastructure that plagues the region.

Edward Winterton

Our latest SME Confidence Tracker revealed that two-thirds of SMEs believe government investment in key infrastructure projects is too London-centric.

Our data also showed that 43% of UK SMEs had never heard of the Northern Powerhouse. A third (32%) of SMEs in the north-west, a quarter (25%) in the north-east and a third (31%) in Yorkshire and Humber were unaware of the initiative or how they could benefit from such regional investment.

There is even contention about the Northern Powerhouse from those SMEs that have heard of it, as 40% think the initiative is too focused on Manchester.

Our tracker also looked at the government’s Midlands Engine initiative, which two-thirds (66%) of SMEs had never heard of. More shockingly, more than half of SMEs in the West (51%) and East Midlands (56%) were unaware of the Midlands Engine or how it might benefit them.

The economic prosperity of the UK’s regions is an issue that is very close to our heart. It’s vital that plans to improve connectivity links throughout the north start to take effect soon. Public transport connections between cities are poor. Not only does this stifle output, it also acts as a barrier to accessing skilled labour pools as commuting throughout the region is troublesome.

Panoramic view of Sheffield from the city's amphitheatre
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If the government is serious in its commitment to building an economy that works for all, it needs to push for the initiatives to take off. Growing business activity equally around the country, increasing jobs and improving infrastructure will only be positive for the economy.

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