On the road to the Northern Powerhouse ?

An all too familiar sight, will we ever see enough credible infrastructure investment in the Northern Region for the above to be a thing of the past?

 

On countless winter week – ends millions of people across the UK would have heard the familiar refrain over the radio “police are advising motorists that the A57 Snake Pass road has been closed due to weather conditions”

Thats’ one of only two direct routes between the Capital of Northern England, Greater Manchester, population 2.6 million and rising and one of the North’s other great cities, Sheffield- capital of South Yorkshire population 1.4 million.

The other “direct” route the A616 that brings the road traveller out just before the M1 at Stocksbridge around 8 miles north of the great ‘Steel City’ is also not immune to closures due to weather.

There are several occasions throughout any one year when direct road travel between these two great metrolpoli is rendered impossible due the lightest dusting of snow.

Distance between the centres of each city is just 32 miles and if you leave Greater Manchester at the last section of the M67 Motorway, travelling in that direction it is around 25 miles.

Yet most fast trackers whether business, freight or personal avoid these two routes altogether and choose to go 45 miles out of their way up to Leeds and then down the M1 or M62 to Sheffield or Manchester depending on the direction of travel.

Two great cities with their economic and cultural potential thwarted by an embarrassing and inconceivable lack of infrastructure serving both of the cities.

In fact all the great cities of the North from Liverpool in the West to Hull in the East are in desperate need of Megastructure investment.

Infrastructure that will not only serve the needs of the individual city regions, but will create overarching interactive transport, communications and development structures that will serve the six city regions as a whole.

Imagine London and Reading (separated by similar distances to Manchester and Sheffield), connected by a single track road that was subject to frequent closure due to insufficient flood defences holding back the River Thames at high water.

If your imagination will not stretch that far, you can be forgiven because in a universally recognised economically unbalanced country, where wealth and infrastructure is distributed with an unhealthy bias toward the South East, it would not be allowed to happen.

It was this glaring imbalance that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ was meant to address, but since the demise of the Cameron Government following the Brexit vote, the much heralded revival of the North seems to have taken a back seat.

Leaving the disparity of investment per head of the UK  population firmly entrenched.

So far the Northern Region has been promised £556 million pounds, much of it gong to Greater Manchester which has upset many other cities.

That aside the money barely scratches the surface and is not targeted at a major game changing projects like a viable road route between Manchester and Sheffield or electrification of the Trans Pennine Railway, but at localised vanity and research projects such as the £150 million, Henry Royce Centre within the Manchester University campus.

It’s not that projects such as these are not worthwhile they are but they do very little to synergise the different cities, but conversely create further rivalry between them.

If there is to be a meaningful NOPOH strategy then it needs to be a project that benefits all the major areas of population along the M62 Corridor, which was probably the last major project to do so.

If the May Government is paying lip service to meaningful Northern investment, then the concept certainly has not lost ground in the hearts and minds of Labour Politicians.

Andrew Gwynne MP recently published a press release entitled ‘Fair Deal for the North’

MP Gwynne wants a fair deal for the North when it comes to infrastructure spending

Ignoring the Tory progenitor of the Northern Power House (NOPOH) concept George Osborne, the Right Honourable Mr Gwynne, said he “backed the Shadow Chancellor’s commitment to rebalance spending across the country, which would see increased levels of public investment across the North West.”

Well that certainly makes career sense and he even re orientates the North – Side divide economic imbalance, by rebranding the Northern Powerhouse a la Osborne the “Barnett Formula for the North.

Labour declares Mr Gwynne, will not only implement fairness towards the North it will be a legal requirement of a future Labour administration: “Labour’s new plans run contrary to current Tory spending proposals, whereby the North receives only half the investment per head of London, instead pledging to create a “Barnett Formula for the North.”

The Barnett Formula, an economic method devised in 1978 by Labour’s treasury chief secretary Joel Barnett, legally protects and boosts spending in different parts of the country.

Gwynne concentrates on the much needed Northern transport infrastructure and delivering “Crossrail for the North”, a series of major rail improvements across existing west-east links in the North of England.

Not forgetting his own electoral backyard Mr Gwynne said “We all know how badly we need local transport across Audenshaw, Denton, Dukinfield and Reddish to improve after years of Tory cuts, that’s why I’m committed to Labour’s radical new plans to transform investment in the North West.

All very well Mr Gwynne but where is the big vision?

He continues “For too long the North has been at the wedge end of spending decisions from London which is why a future Labour government will introduce legislation to make sure future governments will be charged with auditing their regional capital spend against economic need, and reporting to Parliament when the investment imbalances are excessive.

“Labour wants to move away from the view that whatever works in the City of London will benefit the whole country – that’s why Labour wants everyone to get involved in developing Regional Economic Plans.

Tameside’s leader Kieron Quinn writing recently, described NOPOH as the”initiative that myself and counterparts in other northern local authorities believed to have gone with the sacking of George Osborne last summer.” and he was relieved “to see the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ reappear in the government’s industrial strategy press release.”

Artist’s impression for plans for the EXPO at the Snipe

While recoiling from Councillor Quinn’s support for the Ashton EXPO 2025, designated on a former coal mine, he certainly has a grasp of the scope that a Northern Powerhouse needs to encompass in order to be anything more than a catch phrase.

Quinn is implicitly critical of the minor impact the current round of spending (556Million) will deliver to the North saying: “On the government’s project list to be funded by this cash are: an intermodal transport terminal on the East Yorkshire coast, a ‘21st century’ conference centre and hotel at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, £10 million for the Manchester and Cheshire life sciences fund and some flood defences in Yorkshire. While recognising the the worthiness in these projects he goes on to ask “Where is High Speed 3, the East-West high speed rail link? Where are the plans to build the homes we need for the 2 million on housing waiting lists nationally? Where is the money for the circular Metrolink line that would connect Greater Manchester’s satellite towns without the need to travel across the city centre?

He is also scathing about the continued disparity between infrastructure spending in London compared to the Northern Region stating the “£556 million also pales in comparison to the £1.2 billion pledged for the London Underground’s Northern Line extension(The cross rail link to be named the Elizabeth Line).”

Cllr Quinn believes there may be a switch in the Government’s focus in a cynical electioneering ploy to win votes

In a statement to the Tameside Reporter, Council Leader Quinn is even clearer and believes there may be a cynical switch of focus away from the North saying: “The Northern Powerhouse is and always has been more a branding and marketing exercise than anything else, though at one time there was some money and political will from the previous Chancellor to make it much more than that.

The new Government under Theresa May clearly has different priorities. They appear to be focusing much more on the ‘Midlands Engine’ which, if I were being cynical, I would suggest is a political calculation because they believe that the Conservatives have a chance of winning the West Midlands Mayoral election in May whereas such an upset here in Greater Manchester is highly unlikely.

“It may be that once the Mayoral elections are out of the way and the politicking has ceased for the time being, the Government will look again at their plans for a Northern Powerhouse. Given that infrastructure in the North has suffered from chronic underinvestment when compared with London and the South East, and that Local Government in the North has faced more significant cuts than elsewhere in the Country, that is certainly something I will be campaigning for.”

Tameside Tory Leader proud to be a Northerner and believes there is substance from Teresa May’s Government towards rebalancing the North South Divide

 

 

John Bell the long serving Tory Leader of Tameside says “It is absolutely right to focus outside the South East.” and contrary to Council Leader Quinn, he is of the firm belief that the May Government is still committed to the Northern Powerhouse both in name and substance.

He added: “The North has been living in the shadow of the South East for far too long but it was a Tory Government that formulated the idea because we saw the massive difference between the North and the South.

“The combined councils of Greater Manchester have always done a brilliant job at promoting the region, it is because of that, that Former Chancellor George Osborne instigated the process.

“I believe NOPOH will promote growth to show we can stand on our two feet, I am sure May is behind the project as her Government has already earmarked £3.3 Billion for capital projects between now and 2020.

“Already foreign investors are responding and investment into Greater Manchester is at record level increasing by a quarter in the first 3 months of 2016.

‘It will not be a quick fix. it will have to be done over time, there is no magic money tree, we have to ensure the skills are there to sustain growth once it comes, as well as the transport links to enable people to get to work. Thats why the government is investing £70 million in the ‘schools strategy'”

 

A true Northern Powerhouse will equate to the grand vision and ambition of our great Grandfathers who brought the ocean to our backyard. This ship was berthed less than a mile from Manchester City Centre.

Meanwhile Andrew Gwynne invites us the electorate to put forward our ideas for regeneration the North saying “We want to hear from you, what we, Labour in Government, can do to deliver on the potential of the Denton and Reddish constituency.” Please visit www.labour.org.uk/northwestplan where you can get involved.

Well here is my input for what it worth, what about a seaway linking the Mersey with the Humber via the Manchester Ship Canal (currently undergoing a minor revival) and the Trent and Mersey. From there then leading onto the Humber itself, linking the East Coast ports serving Europe with the West Coast ports connecting Ireland, The Americas and the Western Seaboard of Europe.

Unrealisable and too expensive ? Maybe …but in terms of grand ambition at the beginning of the 21st century, it is no more a pipe dream than the Ship Canal, that made Manchester, the Country’s third busiest port was at the end of the 19th century, 120 years ago.

Of course it does not have to be a Seaway, but if the Northern Powerhouse is to be truly realised then the projects will have to be all encompassing geographically, needed and sustainable for years to come.

Going forward the investment disparity continues, Boris Johnson when Mayor of London instigated plans for 185 million pound, 367 metres Garden Bridge crossing  from the South Bank to Temple and featuring 270 trees and thousands of plants. This project had secured £60 million pounds in public funds intended for its completion.

Now with a new mayor in place the bridge’s future is in doubt however, even if the project is cancelled there are reports the whole affair will cost the taxpayer 20 million pounds.

But I believe I have the best example of all in terms of spending imbalance- As a then resident of London circa 1990, I passed an Evening Standard billboard that boldly proclaimed “£5 Billion needed to maintain Underground infrastructure in the next 5 years “.

At the time Greater Manchester Councils were collectively asking the Government to grant them £200 million to kick start the tram system.

Wow I reflected, descending Leyton Tube Station steps, the Underground will get  £5 Billion to maintain what its already got and Manchester is asking Parliament for £200 Million to build and develop a two line Light Rail System.

It puts the issue into some perspective doesn’t it?

Do you have ideas for badly needed infrastructure projects that will enhance the prosperity of the North? If so we would like to hear from you about them….