Let’s be honest, successive governments have failed the North of England. Ministers, opposition politicians, officials and think tankers come up with ideas, but there’s never a silver bullet. I get fed up though when I hear about the problems of the North. That, to me, is looking at it upside down. Our passion and anger behind our calls for a Northern Revolution stem from a sense that this part of the country has as big a part to play in the future as it did in the past.
A high speed rail line to London is the latest initiative designed to help our economy. But it brings with it some sizeable risks.
I think there are dangers lurking ahead. One, and possibly the biggest risk of all to the prosperity of the North of England, is that the solution to the economic lag of the North is somehow solved by building a railway.
Yes, it will help, but it mustn’t be used to tick a box. It is an enormous investment, but it is going to take an absolute age. The time it will take to build the thing is a generation away. It is bold to take such a long view, but much more needs to happen in the meantime.
I was on TV earlier this year making the same point about Enterprise Zones. They alone won’t achieve economic growth. The same applies to HS2, Regional Growth Fund and Local Enterprise Partnerships. Too much box ticking is going on in isolation, too little joined up thinking.
When former transport secretary Lord Andrew Adonis came to talk to a Downtown members in Lancashire and Manchester in April he confirmed that there is no logical reason why HS2 can’t be built from the North to the south, or both. If the aim is to help the North, then the first phase should be to redevelop Piccadilly station, build the tunnel under south Manchester, connect the airport and provide further connectivity to Manchester Airport, making it accessible from all points south.
Three, something very serious needs to be done to address the transport infrastructure of how the country is crossed from East to West. The expansion of Liverpool docks by Peel deserves fulsome support for how goods are then distributed to the rest of the North.
By throwing so much capital infrastructure into HS2, it kicks this urgent need into the long grass.
Four, the shorter journey time to London starts to shrink the reach of the talent pool. As Manchester and Leeds are two hours from the capital then it makes sense to have a physical presence in the North. Cutting journey times to an hour undermines the case for that. I think the flight of senior corporate finance professionals from Birmingham to London has been evidence of this.
Finally though, and positively, the strongest argument for the building of HS2 is that it will relieve capacity on the West Coast Mainline. Yet it doesn’t sound as electrifying as cutting journey time to an hour, but it is the most practical and necessary action that needs to be taken sooner rather than later. Too much freight is on the roads while the line is so full.
More politicians like Andrew Adonis please!
Lord Adonis likes to do down his own electability, but he struck me recently as a very important thinker with much to contribute. He also comes across as a really decent person. He has three big specialisms; transport, education and regional economic development. Inevitably, these are linked.
I asked him about the work he’s doing in the North East – LEPs working together, a skills revolution, a Combined Authority, an “Oyster” style travel card that works across trains and buses. He confirmed that all of this was informed massively by the Greater Manchester model.
I asked him too about the potential for London’s ever powerful Mayor and the clout it gives our capital – “when I was Transport Secretary and I got a call from the Mayor of London I took that call”. He agreed that cities like Manchester need them too – “Manchester should have a mayor. In time this will happen”, though admitted it is a tough argument to make amongst all three parties.
He was also on sparkling form in talking about the urgent need to develop apprenticeships and reduce the number of kids who aren’t in education, employment or training something that we hear everywhere we go.
Lord Adonis was just the latest in a series of high profile, influential and thought leading figures to work with us on crafting our Northern revolution agenda. We want to stimulate a fresh approach to business engagement, a higher priority to regional needs and a recognition that our great cities and counties and communities are not the problem to the economic malaise of this country, but are part of the solution.