George Osborne’s Northern overtures

A new high-speed railway is a worthwhile project, and it seems almost churlish to point to the downsides, but downsides there are

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George Osborne’s talk of linking the major cities of the North by high-speed rail and improved road links is welcome, even if it will be seen by some as a late bid for Northern votes. He is quite right to point out that too much of the country’s wealth creation is concentrated in London.

The idea of pulling Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds metaphorically closer together by reducing journey times is a good one.

Geography creates a natural wall between Yorkshire and the North-west, in the form of the Peak District and the Pennines. Driving the 42 miles from Manchester to Sheffield or vice versa takes a minimum of 70 minutes. The train takes 48 minutes. The fastest train journey from Manchester to Leeds, a distance of 34 miles, is 49 minutes. The 40 miles from Reading to London takes about half that time.

The idea which the Chancellor has picked up on in his Manchester speech is that none of those four Northern cities is big enough on its own to be a world-class city, but join them together with quick, comfortable transport links and you have a conglomeration with a population equivalent to London’s, with a £154bn economy and almost 3 million jobs.

It is a worthwhile project, and it seems almost churlish to point to the downsides, but downsides there are. First, if it ever becomes a reality it will be so far into the future that with no money yet committed, it is little more than a pipe dream. Second, as Mr Osborne himself said, it is a project to suit “smart entrepreneurial people” who will be able to pursue their professions in two, three or four big cities. It will not necessarily transform the lives of people trapped in the cycle of inner-city deprivation.

And if the Chancellor’s speech, delivered in a city where the Conservatives have not even won a seat on the city council in more than 20 years, is meant to begin to overcome the party’s Northern problem, all that can be said is that there is a very long way still to go.

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