The journey from Carlisle in north west England to the French capital is not straightforward. You could brave the M6, one of the UK’s most congested motorways, and drive to Liverpool or Manchester airports in a couple of hours. Instead of driving, you could cut your carbon footprint by getting a train, or rather several: the Carlisle to Liverpool/Manchester journey takes two and a half hours, with up to two changes. Surprisingly (or maybe not?), the easiest if not the cheapest route is a direct three-hour train to London, followed by a Eurostar to the seedy charms of Gare du Nord. Whichever route you choose, it becomes clear just how poor transport connections linking the North to London and beyond really are.
The Association of Civil Engineers (ACE) points out that “the general lack of public transport provision across the North is well documented.”1 The business case for the Northern Powerhouse, a concept introduced by the Chancellor George Osborne in June 2014, is compelling. Better transport connections will boost the local economy, improve social provision, and encourage more distributed and less urbanised housing development.2
There is, however, another connection between Carlisle and Paris. On 7 December 2015, David Cameron promised to review Carlisle’s flood defence plans, after its new barrier failed to protect the city from Storm Desmond, causing widespread havoc and damage to the city and its people. Five days later, Cameron described the internationally-agreed deal at COP21 in Paris as "a huge step forward in securing the future of the planet". The destruction in Carlisle and the wider region was just one manifestation of the severe and frequent weather events that are impacting on our infrastructure base as a result of climate change. It underscored the importance of reaching a deal to curb carbon emissions in Paris, a deal which came not a day too soon.
The north of England in not alone in needing to increase its climate resilience. The area also needs new infrastructure to boost the regional economy. However, the UK has committed to reducing carbon emissions by at least 80%. Will the government and investors need to choose between these challenges? Or can the Northern Powerhouse become the UK’s biggest opportunity to build a strikingly new, zero-carbon climate resilient society?
This will require climate resilience to be at the heart of every infrastructure decision in the region. A long term view is needed, and this means asking new questions of what our infrastructure is designed to do. Will the new Hull and Liverpool port access infrastructure withstand sea level rises beyond the 1.5°C, 2°C, and 3°C global average temperature rise scenarios? Will new housing developments need reasonable flood-resilient features (such as green roofing or tiled rather than carpeted floors) to be insurable?
There might be a need for unpopular decisions, in some cases sacrificing short-term cost- effectiveness for medium- and long-term resilience. Will the public accept fewer kilometres of road or less convenient travel routes if money is spent on making their infrastructure more climate resilient instead? My colleague Simon Harrison goes further in his blogpost ‘Northern Powerhouse: The engineering contribution’ and asks: “Why not make the Northern Powerhouse the exemplar for connected infrastructure?” He writes about how harnessing global trends such as sharing economy, electric and driverless transport, connected healthcare, asset management, and digital infrastructure could make the Northern Powerhouse a beacon of low carbon, resilient and end user-oriented development.
Embracing climate resilience and low carbon design demands vision and innovation. The Northern Powerhouse region hosts eight Russell Group Universities, has the fastest-growing labour market in the UK, and a booming construction industry. It has the resources, the need, the investment, and the opportunity. Can the North inspire the rest of the country to build society in a new way?
1 ‘Improving Connectivity Between Cities in the North of England’, a response to the National Infrastructure Commission, January 2016