As thorns in the side go, it’s hard to think of one bigger or pricklier than a former Chancellor who has a new job as editor of the Evening Standard.
George Osborne has been at it again – this time offering the Prime Minister some helpful advice in the pages of the FT. Unusually, however, it’s not the Tory infighting that interests me. It’s the fact that the former MP for Tatton has voiced strong support for new Northern Powerhouse Rail, or ‘HS3’.
The intervention is timely. Commuters on both sides of the Pennines (that is to say: the right and the wrong) are hacked off.
Hailing from Lancashire (the right side), I rolled my eyes again last month when Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling started to unpick the Government’s commitment to electrify the Transpennine railway.
The line runs from Liverpool to Newcastle, also connecting Leeds and Manchester, and electrification had previously been touted as one of the infrastructure interventions “at the heart of our plan to build a Northern Powerhouse.”
Grayling has since said that “there are places that were built in Victorian times where it is very difficult to put up electric cables.”
Really? Within weeks of sounding a cautionary note in the Pennines, he had announced £31 billion of funding for Crossrail 2 – I’m no engineer, but I’m fairly confident that a new railway beneath a global mega city is more complicated than retrofitting existing lines, even those north of Watford Gap.
In an age of Heathrow expansion, HS2 and not one but two Crossrails, the lack of major transport investment in the Northern Powerhouse is beginning to undermine the whole concept. Crossrail 2 was not in the Conservative manifesto. Northern Powerhouse Rail was.
IPPR North has calculated that from 2016-17 onward, planned transport investment in London amounts to £1,940 per head. For the North the figure is £427. It has started a petition calling for £59 billion of ‘catch up’ investment and a ‘Crossrail North’. Almost 85,000 people have signed so far, including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.
Businesses are also mobilised; recently Grant Thornton, Addleshaw Goddard and Atkins put transport in the spotlight through their Unlocking Growth in the North report. Now, George Osborne has added his weight, backing a £7 billion line from Liverpool to Hull.
Grayling has since mounted a stronger defence of his position in the Yorkshire Post, arguing that the Government has committed £60 million to develop proposals for Northern Powerhouse Rail and that the project is simply five years behind Crossrail 2.
Infrastructure investment in the capital undeniably makes sense if the Government wants to see return on investment reflected in GDP. But one of the fundamental theories behind the Northern Powerhouse is that the north should begin to act as a unified economic entity to boost productivity. Northern cities ought to interact in a similar way to the constituent parts of Greater London.
There have been some steps forward in organisational terms: the creation of combined authorities, metro mayors and Transport for the North, for instance. But physical connectivity and better transport is at the heart of the issue. The Powerhouse simply won’t happen unless the north is brought closer together.
Ali Hall is an account director at Camargue