Cheshire: Gateway to the Northern Powerhouse?

Cheshire East Council Image copyright Google
Image caption Cheshire is hoping to play a key role in the Northern Powerhouse

Looking at a map, Cheshire might appear to be on the fringes of the Northern Powerhouse, but officials in the county say it's actually the Gateway to it - bringing in commuters and investment.

Cheshire is home to major employers in science and manufacturing, housing developers are eager - some would say too eager - to build new homes, and it could soon have two high-speed rail stations.

The presence of the Northern Powerhouse's chief architect, Chancellor George Osborne, as the MP for Tatton, means there is the will within Whitehall for Cheshire to benefit from devolution.

The Powerhouse allows Cheshire companies "to be part of something far greater", according to Cygnet Group chief executive Matthew Kimpton-Smith.

His Northwich firm sells specialist machinery, predominantly to China and the United States. He says the Northern Powerhouse gives his company "real power, real punch" on the world stage.

Image copyright Farrells
Image caption A new HS2 station at Crewe was backed in a report last year

But Cheshire has been beaten in the race to take on devolved powers.

Officials have had to watch as devolution deals were done with the noisy neighbours in Manchester and Liverpool. They've even lost territory as the Cheshire borough of Halton decided to become part of the Liverpool city region.

'Poisoned chalice?'

Over the summer, anxious to avoid being left behind, the two councils in the east and west of Cheshire, plus Warrington, hurriedly put together their own devolution bid to meet a tight government timetable.

Warrington Borough Council's chief executive Steven Broomhead, who used to run the Northwest Regional Development Agency, said the bid wouldn't just "enhance and grow" the county's economy - it would allow the borough to escape the influence of its neighbours' elected mayors.

Image caption Steven Broomhead was appointed as Warrington Borough Council's Chief Executive in 2012

But as city regions have so far been the only places to have agreed deals, there's a lack of clarity over what a Cheshire deal might look like.

It seems so unclear that the leader of Warrington Borough Council, Terry O'Neill, recently said his authority wasn't sure whether devolution would be "a poisoned chalice or an opportunity".

A report by the think tank IPPR North seems to acknowledge this, calling for "greater clarification of the purpose, process and timescale" of devolution deals for counties.

It's also not clear whether the government will insist on a Cheshire elected mayor.

Until there are firm answers to questions like those, the county's Powerhouse ambitions may just be held back.

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