However, with Osborne likely to be replaced by the incoming prime minister, doubts have been expressed over whether his successor will be as enthusiastic about the project.
Osborne represents the constituency of Tatton in Cheshire, but the Conservative leadership candidates, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, have constituencies in the south.
Leadsom opposes HS2, the high-speed rail link between London, Birmingham and the north. After being made economic secretary to the Treasury two years ago, she called for a “dramatic rethink” of the project. The economic case for the rail line was “questionable and rapidly deteriorating”, Leadsom claimed,promising to fight against it.
Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, said HS2 was “potentially under threat” should Leadsom become prime minister. “There are some real issues for all of us in that,” he told an audience of northern English leaders at the launch of a report by the thinktank ResPublica in Salford on Friday.
Speaking at the event, Greg Clark, the local government secretary, said: “The forces of centralisation, especially in Whitehall, are very powerful. And there are people who for many years, for many decades, have been used to gradually eroding the power from cities, towns. No doubt they will reassert themselves with the same arguments that ‘this is not the time to do this, we need to consolidate’. So I think we need to have a big fight for this agenda.”
Clark, who has endorsed May, said he did not believe that either candidate would try to reverse Osborne’s devolution agenda, but urged business and political leaders in the north of England to hold them both to account. Neither woman, nor their future cabinet, should be allowed to work against the north, Clark said.
“It’s a time of great change for our country, not least the changes of leadership … Almost all of the political parties are having a conversation about leadership during the days and weeks ahead, and I would urge you all to make your voices heard, not only to ask, but to insist that those chosen to lead, work for and not against your empowerment,” he said. “You already demonstrated your ability to take responsibility and take control. There’s no doubt about the capacity of you to make your own decisions, so don’t settle for anything less.”
Asked how dependent the delivery of the northern powerhouse was on Osborne, Clark said: “George deserves enormous credit for recognising, not just for the north, but the whole nation, the agenda. And he has been a formidable champion.
“I don’t think the question any longer is: should we devolve? I don’t think you’ll find any of the candidates for leadership of the party saying, ‘We need to reverse this, we need to centralise power back into Westminster and Whitehall’. I don’t see anyone saying that or even thinking that. The question is how far we can go.”
The conference was arranged to discuss a report by ResPublica entitled Our Manifesto for the North, which calls for the establishment of a “council of the north” to enable the region to lobby central government with one voice.
The report also suggests the establishment of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-type institution in the north, noting that there are currently no northern universities in the top 50 world rankings. “We need to create a world in which the north is a place to go if you are clever,” said ResPublica’s director, Phillip Blond.