Commenting on today's Autumn Statement, Robert Hannah, Board Member for the Regions at Grant Thornton UK LLP, said: "George Osborne's vision for a Northern Powerhouse is a good start but what businesses in the North of England also need is global air links, with more international flights from Manchester airport, to build a truly global powerhouse.
"In the run up to Autumn Statement we asked leaders from medium-sized businesses for their priorities for infrastructure investment. They identified better access to education and training (70%), improved broadband (59%) and improved road links (57%). Businesses will therefore welcome the Chancellor's additional support for firms employing apprentices under 25 and the announcement of how the existing highways budget will be spent on specific road improvement schemes. Grant Thornton has been calling for government to scrap NIC for all apprentices so we are pleased to see progress on this. There may still be more to do on broadband – to create global 'smart' cities which enable businesses in every sector to embrace digital innovation.
"Businesses in the North of England also told us their priorities for creating a 'Northern Powerhouse'. A faster, more frequent and reliable Trans-Pennine railway linking cities across the North was a top priority, supporting growth by enabling them to access a bigger labour market. The announcement that new trains and carriages will be introduced as part of the new northern rail franchise will go some way towards that, but what businesses will also want to see is more frequent services and network improvements to provide faster and more reliable services.
"Businesses also told us that they wanted more international flights from local airports, rather than from London. The autumn statement included a welcome additional £20 million next year for UKTI to help first time exporters. Alongside this we must make it quicker and easier for our businesses, especially in the North of England, to get to growing international markets like China, India and South America as well as Europe. Manchester airport is running at only 50% capacity so a commitment to double international flights would bring a huge boost to exports from the North.
"The Chancellor should be applauded for his commitments to invest in new world class science facilities in northern cities, including a new Sir Henry Royce Institute for advanced material science in Manchester, with branches in Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield. But again, international flights from Manchester will be crucial to the success of this new global science and business hub, which will need global air links.
"Devolution will also support the Northern Powerhouse. The Chancellor said today that his door was open for more cities to follow Manchester in collaborating across a number of local authorities to secure new powers and budgets from Whitehall. Businesses have told us that local transport and skills should be the core of these city region powers. Today the Chancellor announced devolution of business rates to Wales. This was not a part of the recent Manchester devolution package, but there is significant appetite for business rates to be devolved to city regions, to give authorities a tangible incentive to promote business growth and this is something that government should look at again.
"We know local authorities in Sheffield and Leeds have already formed combined authorities and should be next to secure devolution deals.
"The Grant Thornton high growth index of places shows that outside London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol are in the top 5 cities for high growth and that we are seeing the emergence of growth corridors in places like the West Midlands. It is therefore encouraging to see councils in places like the West Midlands working to form combined authorities and seek devolution deals. Other fast growing cities like Bristol will want to follow their lead on cross-council collaboration to drive economic growth."