PLEASE Sir, can we have a general election every year?
George Osborne has been MP for Tatton, to the south of Manchester, since 2001. That’s 13 years in which to familiarise himself with the surrounding region; 13 years in which to acquaint himself with its appalling transport infrastructure; 13 years of clogged roads and poor, slow cross-country rail services.
Suddenly, with less than a year to go to the polls, the Chancellor has said he wants to do something about it. As if overnight, he’s turned into a Northern evangelist, talking enthusiastically about investment programmes, better links between the major cities, apprenticeship schemes, and greater power residing in the hands of elected local mayors.
Much more of this and a walk-on part in Coronation Street or Emmerdale seems a certainty. But that is precisely the problem: the feeling of a metropolitan elite having a soap opera view of a vast swathe of the country. Throw a few pounds at it, they seem to be saying, and the difficulties will go away.
Better still there might be some votes to be had. And, as this is Osborne, there’s also an opportunity for some political point-scoring: he says he’d rather be spending money this way, helping people in their working lives, hopefully attracting foreign investment, than handing it out in welfare benefits, which just encourages folk to sit at home and do nothing.
Of course, the £15bn cost of the improvements is not to be sniffed at. But it’s long overdue, will only partially address the underlying issues, and is nothing compared with the tens of billions heaped on the South-East of England in recent years.
It also displays a fundamental lack of understanding about the North. I say that as a Northerner. Osborne is encouraging the notion of a single “powerhouse” to match London and the Home Counties; the buzz is all about “One North.”
But the cities of the North are entirely separate, each with their own identity, traditions and heritage. The rivalry between them is intense. To try and join them together in some common purpose will end in tears – wait until there really is a multinational dangling a dollop of cash, and watch how the competition for that new factory will unfold. Will Liverpool happily step back and say to Leeds, “there you go, this boost to employment is all yours, squire”? What do you think?
The distances between them are long, with a range of hills in-between. Imagine a plan to combine Southampton with Norwich, with London in the middle – that is the southern equivalent of uniting Liverpool with Leeds and Hull, and that is without the Pennines acting as a natural barrier. A government would never think in such terms regarding the south - yet apparently, it is acceptable to do so where the northern cities are concerned. Why?
Unlike the South-East, there is no fulcrum in the North. There isn’t a dominant city, one that sits in the middle, from which everything flows. Not at present.
Much suspicion in the North surrounds the ambition of Manchester. It already sees itself as “England’s Second City”, casually disregarding the claims of Birmingham. Revitalised by the Commonwealth Games of 2002 (memo to city planners, as well as general elections, next best must be a Commonwealth Games, assuming the Olympics is off-limits, for new buildings and roads – just ask Manchester and Glasgow), blessed with a dynamic, go-ahead council, Manchester is sweeping everything before it.
Too much of the current planning from Westminster revolves around Manchester. At the same time, too much focus is on linking the cities, as if that’s the answer – of the former industrial towns, large centres in their own right, there is scarcely any mention.
That, however, is the issue. It’s too little, too late. And having alighted on the North, why stop there? The West and East Midlands, the North-East, the South-West – they could all do with urgent upgrades. There’s an election coming and Westminster has woken up to Britain beyond the M25, but it’s nowhere near enough.