Ever since George Osborne took on Neil O’Brien as one of his advisers in the Treasury the Chancellor has shown a growing interest in the need to heal the North/South divide and the difference between Planet London and the rest of the UK. Today Osborne will underline that concern about the way the country’s economy is lopsided by announcing his intention for a third high-speed rail link to connect Leeds and Manchester.
At a speech in Manchester, Osborne will say:
‘We need a northern powerhouse too. Not one city, but a collection of northern cities – sufficiently close to each other than combined they can take on the world. Able to provide jobs and opportunities and security to the many, many people who live here, and for whom this is all about.’
Osborne is already impressed by the strong civic leadership that Manchester shows: I wrote about his admiration for the Labour-run city here. But he clearly wants cities to have even stronger leadership. He told the Today programme that ‘I think there is a strong case for elected mayors in places like Greater Manchester to make sure they have the same powers and the same clout as the Mayor of London does in our capital.’
The problem is, though, that voters may well appreciate the benefits brought by a locally accountable mayor who acts as an advocate for their city, but they don’t support these mayors when asked to through referenda. Only Bristol narrowly supported an elected mayor in its referendum in 2012. Salford, Doncaster, Liverpool and Leicester have also adopted directly-elected mayors. But the appetite for devolution is limited across the country. This is the conundrum that Osborne knows he must address if he wants to create a northern powerhouse.