Bold proposals for a better connected North
Mayor of London and parliamentary hopeful Boris Johnson recently described how England has been “short-changed by devolution”. This is a point with which I have long agreed. The English regions and especially those in the North have suffered as a result of this political devolutionist policy, which was not only about out of proportion funding but significant devolution of powers and local decision making to Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Finally, Government has realised that it cannot redress the UK’s economic imbalance without supporting the major City Regions of Northern England.
Devolution looks set to be a hot topic between now and the General Election next year and I hope this will not mean more promises to the devolved countries at the expense of England, just to gain votes.
The UK’s economic imbalance has been created largely as a result of the way in which London sucks in power, talent and big-ticket Government investments. As MPs spend most of their week in Westminster and most media are in the South, the North has fallen foul of these deep-rooted attitudes about where investments should be made and who they should benefit.
The extent of the Government’s skewed approach to investment was laid bare in a report last year which showed Londoners were receiving over £5,000 more per person on capital investment than people in the North East, and that Crossrail alone will receive nine times more funding than all rail projects in the North put together.
I fully support Crossrail because good transport networks are fundamental to continued economic success of London, in the same way as transport investment is fundamental to economic success in the North. However, even before Crossrail opens, you can’t help but notice that current journey times across the North are slower than in the South due to lack of investment by successive Governments.
This is why HS2 is so important to the North. It isn’t just about improved links to London and less overcrowding on existing services. HS2 also means better links between the major cities of the North, which for the Sheffield City Region ought to mean faster connections with Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, East Midlands and Scotland. HS2 will happen but we need it to happen more quickly. Ministers and civil servants must make investment in infrastructure in the North their top priority if they are to get value for money (a favourite Whitehall phrase) from all the other investment in the North.
Last month the City Regions of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield unveiled the One North report, which underlines the critical importance of transport for economic growth across the North. The report asks Government to invest £10-15 billion so we can, as the Chancellor put it, perform as “a collection of northern cities – sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world.”
The report outlines bold plans to make Leeds and Manchester reachable within 30 minutes of the Sheffield City Region by 2030 by bringing forward the Leeds to Sheffield City Region section of HS2 and by tunnelling to Manchester.
There is no denying that £10-15 billion is a major ask, even if it is spread over a number of years. However, investments of this scale are routinely contemplated for London and the South, with Crossrail and Crossrail 2 together costing in excess of £25 billion. How much for yet another traffic congestion creating runway at Heathrow? With proper road and rail connections to the North, they shouldn’t need one as much better use will be made of regional airports, where space and good transport links will not mean it takes twenty years to even make a decision let alone build.
I believe that the One North report gives those politicians with power and influence, who truly believe in growing the North, a real opportunity to show they are serious about addressing the UK’s economic imbalance. I believe this is the debate that needs to take place over the coming months, irrespective of political differences. It is important we do it now so all political parties are committed to the concept before the General Election.
Like many people who live in Yorkshire and the North, I feel we should no longer accept being treated as second class citizens starved of investment. We have some great cities and surrounding regions that, if properly connected, will flourish and compete on a world stage.
This article was originally written for the Yorkshire Post and appeared in print in the Business section on Tuesday 2 September 2014.