Going forward the northern way

LinkedIn +

A new £100M growth fund to help drive forward a vision for the economy of the North of England was launched in September by the three Northern Regional Development Agencies (One Northeast, Yorkshire Forwards and the Northwest Development Agency). The growth strategy, called Moving Forward: The Northern Way, aims to boost prosperity across the North and address the structural imbalance between the northern regions and the South-east.

In recent years the gap between the North and South-east has widened. Areas such as Tyne and Wear, Merseyside and Cumbria are identified as being among the slowest growing in Europe. Consequently, the North is recognised as being more ill-equipped than the South-east to meet future challenges.

This is the second major report emanating from the northern regions within a relatively short space of time. Late in 2003, the North West Advisory Group launched a regional freight strategy with the primary aim to stimulate sustainable freight transport in the region. Overall the new report is comprehensive, containing an ambitious wish list of proposals and projects that will assist towards boosting the economic rebirth of the northern regions, stretching from Liverpool to the Humber and up to Newcastle.

The report contains proposals to create premier transport links, such as the Trans-Pennine Rail Link, improved road links to the ports and airports and new river crossings on the River Tyne and Mersey. The basis for the report’s success is a new era of closer collaboration across the three regions of the North. In preparing The Northern Way they have reviewed the experience of other nations and territories that have attempted to make a step change in regional and inter-regional economic growth. These include the Ruhr and Rhine-Main in Germany, the Randstad in the Netherlands and the Oresund region in Denmark/Sweden. It has been found that:-

Strong regional leadership is essential.

Bold development plans which define investment priorities are required.

Governance of economic and spatial development programmes are altered so that the right decisions are taken at the right level (eg decisions with region-wide impacts are taken at the regional scale, decisions impacting on the city region are taken at the city region scale etc).

Major transport infrastructure and flagship renaissance projects are of prime importance.

Effective promotion of the region is key to success.

Strategic strengths

The North is a major industrial region, containing a population of 14.3 million and some of Britain’s major conurbations, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Hull, the Humber and Newcastle. Historically, the region, along with the Midlands, was the key centre of the Industrial Revolution.

Goods and products poured from northern factories and cities to markets across the world. The North’s economic advantage lay in its then world-leading industrial technologies, concentrated labour and strong transport links to key markets.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the North gradually lost its markets as other countries industrialised. However, the North still retains a strong manufacturing base, particularly in chemical, high-performance engineering, food and drink and textiles.

Moreover, logistics companies are an essential part of the North’s infrastructure, along with the main motorway and rail networks, airports and sea ports. The logistics cluster includes 23,000 companies, employing some 250,000 people in the North-west. Combined turnover of firms in the region is approximately £26.4Bn. The logistics sector comprises 6,100 businesses in the Yorkshire and Humber region, employing 80,000-plus people. The North-east comprises 3,100 firms and employs 46,000 people.

In terms of good communication links the North is at the crossroads of national strategic east-west and north-south transport corridors. The North has a strong network of motorways, trunk roads and rail services which serve the major cities and towns. Many of the cities sit astride the M62 route between Ireland and northern Europe.

The region also contains Britain’s second most important airport, Manchester airport, and the major ports of Liverpool, Newcastle, Teesside and the Humber ports. The Port of Liverpool is the seventh biggest in the UK, has the largest Freezone port in the UK and is one of northern Europe’s top 10 container handling ports.

Improving access

Maritime transport forms an important element of The Northern Way report, pointing out that the UK is the largest maritime trading nation in Europe. The North accounts for around one third of the annual UK ports’ tonnage. Furthermore, the North has a net positive trade balance in manufacturing, with the North-east exporting more than any other English region. The ports of Grimsby and Immingham handle 56 million tonnes, Tees and Hartlepool 54 million and Liverpool 32 million.

The report maintains that further growth of the northern ports will contribute to the North’s economic development. Several factors are identified as working to strengthen the comparative advantages offered by the northern ports including:-

60% of southern port traffic is destined for the North – around one million containers (teus) are moved via southern ports to and from destinations served by, or north of the M62.

Growing road and rail congestion in the South is increasing the costs of using the southern ports. These costs will further increase when the new Lorry Road User Charging Scheme is introduced.

Land around the northern ports is significantly cheaper, and all of the major port operators are investing to further their facilities.

Diverting traffic from the southern ports to the northern ones will help the road and rail networks and communities in the south through reduced congestion and the consequent environmental benefits.

The Port of Liverpool is well positioned to expand with additional deep sea facilities, as it is the single most important gateway to Ireland and a major gateway to and from northern England, North Wales, Dublin, Belfast and the Isle of Man.

Priority projects

The regional agencies want the Department for Transport (DfT) to prepare a National Ports Strategy without delay, and will commence their input to such a strategy. The report says that the greatest potential for growth is within the Humber ports, though it also notes that both Teesside and the Mersey ports also have considerable growth potential.

Advantages mentioned are their proximity to the southern ports and their East coast location with respect to Rotterdam and other countries. The A160 and A63 Humber ports access roads and rail access projects are seen as being priority projects, as is a Second Mersey Crossing.

The Northern Ports Access Plan will set priorities for all roads and rail infrastructure projects necessary to ensure the continuing growth of the northern ports. This will include funding and delivery plan of the dualling of the A160, short- and long-term improvements to the A63 and A5063 and rail port access projects, such as gauge enhancements, local signalling and capacity enhancements for the ports of Humber/Hull, Tees and the Mersey.

Recognition is given to the difficulties presented by the conflicting roles of the A5036, as an urban radial road, linking the port of Liverpool to the M57 and M58.

There are also ambitious plans to reduce congestion to below the national average by 2010, and therefore increase reliability on key strategic northern routes. These include the M62, M60, A1(M) – Gateshead Bypass, A19, A5063, A63 and A160.

The main programme to upgrade the West Coast Mainline will be completed by 2008 and is expected to provide long overdue improvements to rail services between the North and London.

Recognition is also given to the importance of improving rail access to the major ports in the North. For example, investments to enhance the gauge and route capacity of the Trans-Pennine Rail route to the Humber ports, Teesside and the Mersey ports are essential to accommodate the new 9ft 6in high cube containers. This would allow much of the traffic to be accommodated by northern ports. Good news for the logistics industry.

The Strategic Rail Authority’s Freight Strategy 2001 report forecast that 9ft 6in containers would rise from the current 20% of the market to 40% by 2010 and 90% by 2020.

According to the report such investment is essential if freight traffic through the northern ports is to grow, bringing reductions in congestion in the South, and more international traffic is to be encouraged to enter and leave the UK via the northern ports. In light of potential opportunities, an aim of the report is to specifically seek to increase ship arrivals at northern ports from 22% of the national total in 2002 to around 25% by 2010, and increase throughput of northern ports (tonnes) from 32% of the national total in 2002 to around 35% by 2010.

Potential implications

No report is without its faults. In some quarters there is a feeling that The Northern Way places too much emphasis on the Humber ports in terms of priority and detriment of other northern ports. While there are various references to the Port of Liverpool there appears to be little reference, or understanding, on the potential implications for the North as a result of mega container ships.

While there is mention that the southern ports are currently suffering from congestion, there is a feeling that consideration needs to be given to the real threat of mega-container ships diverting to European ports, such as Rotterdam or Le Harve, and bypassing British ports. The Port of Liverpool, well aware of the threat and need to re-position itself in the container market, has initiated measures – the port recently announced plans for a new riverside container port, though this is ignored in The Northern Way.

If the new generation of mega-container ships were to avoid southern ports and instead divert to European ports what would be the implications for the North? This is not considered. Would rail come more into play for pan-European freight transport movements? If so, there is no mention in the report of the part to be played by the Channel Tunnel.

Furthermore, the need for a large scale intermodal freight village infrastructure would be essential if the North is not to become peripheral in the European logistics market.

For years the Government and European Commission have been strongly advocating measures to encourage sustainable freight transport modes, especially those designed to remove heavy lorries from the road network.

Increasingly, the Manchester Ship Canal has become recognised as a major regional transport asset that could play a significant part in sustainable distribution and environmental enhancement. In recent months container traffic has returned to the upper reaches of the Manchester Ship Canal, operated by Clydeport Shipping with wharfage located just below Irlam Locks. The operation has been so successful that the number of ships and frequency is being expanded. The hard standing area for containers is also been expanded and there are plans to build state of the art large scale freight villages along the canal.

Yet, the report contains not a single reference to the Manchester Ship Canal, its potential role for feeder ship traffic, the removal of heavy lorries from the local road network nor the importance of freight villages. This is despite the fact that such logistics developments are now considered essential if the aspirations of the Government’s transport sustainability policy aree to be achieved. Also, without such logistics developments the North is at risk of becoming peripheral to the new enlarged Europe.

In terms of not wanting to be peripheral, Teesport expressed concern about The Northern Way’s recommendations, especially in relation to the Humber ports. Martyn Pellew, PD Ports group development director at Teesport welcomes the report, but strongly urges that the funds support the growth of all the major northern ports and not just those on the Humber. He points out that Teesport’s distinct advantages are its natural assets capable of catering for deep sea feeder traffic.

The port has potential for increase capacity that can be delivered more quickly than its neighbouring ports. It has spare brownfield land, good road links, can accommodate large ships and offer fast turnaround times and a recently built £20M million feeder ship container facility. The port also has daily intermodal rail services delivering containers to and from Glasgow, Manchester and Workington.

Overall, The Northern Way report seems to have bypassed the significance of feeder shipping, and requirement for a multi-regional network of intermodal freight villages.

Finally, in July the Government launched two white papers, one on transport and one on rail, which set the framework agenda for the next decade and beyond. When the transport element of The Northern Way is put into the implementation stage it will have to be done with due consideration and account of these recent white papers. As such, this may assist towards clearer direction and focus for the future of the northern regions. n

Frank Worsford works in the transport studies group at the University of Westminster.

Share this story: