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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine