Chris Blackhurst: Competition with London could be the best way to forge the right connections in the North of England
Midweek View: Lofty talk of a high-speed rail service and greater powers to elected mayors is not the solution
Chris Blackhurst writes regular columns for The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday, and conducts weekly interviews for London Live TV. Blackhurst was City Editor of the Evening Standard for nine years, before becoming Editor of The Independent for two years. He was then promoted to Group Content Director, and in September 2014 he took on the multi-media business role. He’s won numerous awards for his journalism.
Wednesday 25 June 2014
Drive north from London, as I frequently do, to visit family, and the M40 is always pretty clear. It's at Birmingham, where the trouble starts. There's a bit of relief if we pay for the M6 Toll, then we're back into jams again.
They continue all the way, through the North-west. It's only if we're heading further north, to Cumbria, that they ease off. The last stretch, from Preston, once we're past the Blackpool turn-off, is quieter.
Invariably, the journey is like this. Try to drive across the region, and it's worse. Likewise, a trip into the centre of Manchester is a long, slow slog.
As for the train, the West Coast main line is much-improved, but oh dear, once you come off the north-south drag and go on the branch routes, the service is terrible. Not for nothing do Northerners refer to the two-carriage trains (often southern stock that has seen better days) as "rattlers". Mind, they only rattle if they build a head of speed – most of the time, they crawl along.
I apologise for this "down your way" guide. But bear with me, and let me chuck in some other detail. From Manchester to Liverpool by train is about the same distance as London to Reading but takes twice as long. The so-called TransPennine Express takes two hours to travel the 65 miles from Liverpool to Leeds. Manchester to Leeds takes an hour – a distance of 45 miles. And I haven't mentioned journey times to Hull or Sheffield. These are the major cities, don't forget. I haven't touched upon the conurbations in-between, all of them areas of substantial population and once sources of mass industrial employment: Preston, Wigan, Blackburn, Burnley, Bolton, Huddersfield, Bradford, Halifax, Rotherham … the list goes on.
In all, the northern belt from Liverpool across to Hull is home to 9 million people, and an economy of more than £200bn.
Yet, as I've highlighted, the transport links are shockingly awful. They don't get any better if you include the North-east: Newcastle is still served by an A road from London rather than a motorway. Imagine a diagonal line from Merseyside to Tyneside. Now, go and travel along it, by rail or road. Good luck.
Late in the day, George Osborne has woken up to the appalling lack of decent infrastructure in the North. Suddenly, after four years in office, the Chancellor is eulogising about HS3, a new, high-speed railway linking Manchester and Leeds, and a plan for a "supercity", an economic powerhouse of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.
As a Cheshire MP, Mr Osborne is no stranger to the difficulties I've described. The fact he's chosen this moment to be seen to be doing something about them, could, of course, be explained by the coming general election, now less than a year away, and the dangers which are posed to Conservative seats in the North.
Force for that cynical theory is provided by the vagueness surrounding the Chancellor's ideas. Instead of laying out a concrete proposal, full of detail to pore over, Mr Osborne is saying he wants to "start a conversation" about his suggestions.
I'm afraid my advanced state of suspicion where matters of politics and spin doctors are concerned makes me question whether his concept will ever become a reality – merely chatting about something is a long way from making it happen.
Add to that as well the scrapping of a previous attempt by the Coalition Government in 2011 to get things moving in the North – the Northern Way initiative which was intended to boost the region's transport services – and the conviction that this is all to do with the Tories averting a ballot-box disaster is hardened.
But the truth, whatever the reason for the timing, is that the North has been unforgivably neglected by successive governments. The study from the Institute for Public Policy Research finding that spending on major transport projects in London worked out at £2,731 per head versus £134 per head in the North-west is proof enough.
For some time now it's been an open secret in Whitehall that what to do with the northern towns and cities where once there were factories and mills, and now there are none, is the biggest socio-economic problem this country faces. Put simply, there is little to replace the employers of yesteryear – virtually entire generations face the prospect of no work at all. Unfortunately, lofty talk of a high-speed rail service and greater powers devolved to elected mayors who would all come together to cooperate on selling the region, is not the solution.
All the train lines need upgrading, not just one. As someone who would prefer to see more people travel by train than car, I'm forced to admit that the investment must go beyond railways.
The roads are crying out for a massive spending programme, starting with the widening of the M6 and M62 motorways.
Elisabeth Muller, professor of innovation management at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, put it well when she was asked to compare the North of England with Germany's similar Ruhr valley. The latter, she said, was served with a good motorway and local transport system, whereas in the North, "the cities are more like islands".
Building HS3 to join two of these islands would not make much difference to the region's overall prosperity and would yield a poor return on a projected £7bn cost.
Professor Muller is right, too, to speak in terms of "islands". It may be that the differences between the Ruhr cities of Duisburg, Dortmund and Essen, have largely been eradicated by a criss-crossing train and road network, but I remain pessimistic about Mr Osborne's vision for collaboration. The rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester, for example, is intense, as it is between Leeds and Manchester.
Indeed, that hints at one of the underlying, often unspoken, issues: that Manchester is increasingly occupying a position of pre-eminence, a status that is bitterly resented and resisted by its neighbours. Some of this is the work of central government, much of it stems from Manchester's choosing, from constant self-promotion. The hostility goes deeper than any animosity on the football pitch – although that ferocity should give some indication as to the scale of the task confronting anyone in bringing the places closer together.
They've all got enormous civic pride, with their own histories, traditions and universities. Persuading them to put their differences behind them will not be easy.
Mr Osborne's objective is for a second "global city" for the UK which would not be a rival but a "brother-in-arms" for London as they compete for business on the world stage.
Good luck to him. But in mentioning London, and the prospect of them joining forces with the capital, he may have unwittingly touched upon the one subject about which they can all agree. They may not get on terribly well together, but in London and "down South" they have a common enemy, a target that unites them and provides a shared purpose.
Talk of a northern equivalent to London may be the Chancellor's best bet of achieving tangible progress – less brothers-in-arms, more brothers-at-war.
Doubtless however, that is the last outcome he wants to achieve.
The Chancellor's conversation may just be beginning, but he needs telling: it has an awful long way to go.
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