Where does the billion pound bribe for the Democratic Unionist Party leave the drive for devolution in the North? It is not just a question of where the government will put its money. It is also a question of political purpose.
There are plenty of reasons to fear that the May government will take their eye off the Northern Powerhouse (NP) project, but as I found out this week, the answer may lie within our own resources.
First, let’s look at the downside. The NP Minister, Andrew Percy, quit at the reshuffle. That suggests he didn’t see the post as being regarded as important in Whitehall. Then comes news that David Brown is leaving his post as Chief Executive of Transport for the North (TfN) to go to the private sector. Brown has done a good job in translating all the fine talk around the NP into something the public can see as a benefit. TfN will soon have statutory status as the voice of northern transport, will have a big say in rail franchising and this autumn common ticketing will start to be rolled out on our buses and trains. But will Brown’s successor be as good?
In further assessing the drag factors on the NP we have a weak government which will be forced to pay more attention to Belfast than Bradford. Brexit will consume vast amounts of ministers’ time until it hopefully grinds to a halt. While Greater Manchester and Merseyside have got their act together on elected mayors, the rest of the North is frankly a structural mess. George Osborne, the architect of the NP now spends his time using the London Evening Standard to get revenge on Theresa May for sacking him.
It is no wonder that Lord Adonis, head of the National Infrastructure Commission, joined top business organisations in demanding a high priority for infrastructure investment.
I think the government is distracted and we will need to raise our game to compete with those deal makers from Northern Ireland. For instance, why is it going to take till the autumn of 2018 to get the North’s Strategic Transport Plan approved? This emerged at a major transport conference in Manchester this week. We have talked for years about the need to upgrade east-west rail and road links. That is a higher priority for us than HS2. We know this, the government knows that is our position. David Brown told me this week that we’ve never had a statutory plan before. Well OK but delay on our part will just play into the hands of a government distracted by Brussels and Belfast. A government who sent a clearly unprepared Minister to the Manchester conference. In post for eight days junior transport minister, Jesse Norman, had no answer at all to a question about poor quality rolling stock in the North.
Things looked up thereafter though. Council leaders set out an impressive list of priorities. Cumbria wants to improve coastal rail, Lancashire the M65 corridor. Liverpool; resolve the opposition to links between the motorway network and the port. Cheshire; Crewe regeneration around the HS2 hub and Manchester preparing Piccadilly station for the combination of HS2, the northern Hub and improved links to Leeds.
Mayor Andy Burnham, quickly settling into his role as the voice of Greater Manchester, called for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse rail to be done together and Emma Degg, the new boss of the North West Business Leadership Team called for smaller northern towns to be remembered. It was a timely call in an era when there is a fixation on big cities.
There remains a huge gap between transport investment in the South East and North because it is much easier to satisfy Treasury cost benefit criteria when you can produce millions of commuters for any scheme. The conference was told of a vision and validate approach that should be adopted to get northern transport investment off the ground. The private sector will have a vital role in this.
So, we need to use existing powers to keep the Northern Powerhouse moving forward and if you want an acid test of how things are going look out for this. Will Northern Powerhouse rail or Crossrail 2 in London be first to get approval?
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