Betrayal of the North

The Conservative Party Conference 2023 in Manchester Convention Complex. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Picture by James Whatling - Flickr

Paul Salveson on a Tory hotch-potch

Rishi Sunak’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference was remarkable in many ways. The Manchester-based FT writer Jennifer Williams described it as “politics as performance art”. It was littered with half-baked schemes, some of which are undoubtedly worthy but, as civil servants later had to explain, only “illustrative”. Each suggested scheme had to be costed ‘on a case-by-case basis’. Some schemes included in the speech, such as re-opening the Leamside Line in Co. Durham, were quickly withdrawn from the list. Other proposals, such as extending the Greater Manchester Metrolink tram to Manchester Airport, had been completed several years ago. Most bizarre of all was the map on the cover of Sunak’s speech where Manchester had been magically moved thirty miles north to Preston.

To add further insult to injury, Sunak’s speech was delivered at Manchester Central, once one of the city’s major rail terminals. Unsurprisingly, and rightly, Northern politicians have had a field day with accusations of Sunak and the Tories’ “betrayal of the North” through the cancellation of HS2 and its replacement with a rag-bag of schemes which supposedly form his alternative “Network North”. But it’s isn’t a “network” at all, just a hotch-potch of schemes many of which, we’re now told, are merely “illustrative”. In other words, the chances of them happening are slim.

It was interesting listening to Sunak’s speech how the loudest applause from delegates came when he mentioned each major road schemes in his “plan”. This complemented his earlier comments about “ending the war on the motorist”, scrapping life-saving 20 mph zones and dumping those evil ’15 minute neighbourhoods’.  This is a government with a roads agenda every bit as determined as the worst of what we saw in the 70s. His ‘Network North’ may be peppered with good public transport schemes but, most people in rail and bus are asking, how many will actually see the light of day? The figure that Sunak used as the saving from scrapping HS2 north of Birmingham sounds like a lot of money but the projects he rattled off, illustrative or not, add up to much more than £36 billion.

So are we witnessing a “betrayal of the North”? If Sunak’s plan is as shallow and ill-thought as it seems, yes. But as I’ve argued in Chartist over many years, the abandonment of HS2 is not in itself a betrayal of anyone.  It wasn’t just the cost, pushing £200 billion according to Labour peer Tony Berkeley, but the effect of this on other far more valuable schemes which could have been delivered much more quickly, and at less cost, than HS2. It would have strengthened successful cities like Manchester and Birmingham but weakened many towns on routes to London which would have been by-passed by the new line. Overall, it risked sucking wealth from the weaker Northern economy and benefiting the already prosperous South-east.

So the abandonment of HS2 beyond Birmingham opens up opportunities, but these need to address a number of key issues. Firstly, there needs to be a serious, worked-out plan for the North which addresses the long-term issues of climate change and achieving Net Zero. Building lots more roads will have the opposite effect. Secondly, “Network North” (let’s stick with the name) should really be a network which joins up the Northern towns, cities and regions as well as improving links to the rest of the UK – including London but also Scotland, the Midlands and in particular Yorkshire and the North-East. And thirdly, the regions themselves must be active participants in this plan. Not just the city-region mayors but the leaders of all the authorities across the North, including those covering more rural areas.

Politicians, campaign groups and business organisations across the North should take Sunak at his word, whether it can be trusted or not (obviously it can’t), and demand that the £36 billion wish-list is turned into a serious, deliverable plan for the North which addresses those issues of climate change and levelling-up, benefitting all the North and not just the prosperous cities.

The North should stop bleating about HS2, and daft schemes to get private sector funding to complete it to Manchester. Let’s come up with an agreed, deliverable plan that benefits the whole of the North. That doesn’t mean scores of schemes which might help the electoral fortunes of Tory candidates in the next General Election, but projects which really do have a strong social, economic and environmental case. Doing unglamorous but essential schemes like rail electrification, addressing capacity pinch-points on busy routes, and re-opening some strategic routes across the North are what is needed.

Sunak is too busy playing to his own right-wing and the Road Lobby to take much notice, but it is still worth shouting the case and limiting what damage could be done in the next year. Starmer needs to grasp the moment and come up with a strategic and inclusive approach that could start to deliver from Day 1 of a Labour Government.

Paul’s website is His new book Lancastrians: mills, mines and minarets is published by Hurst. Chartist readers can get a 25% discount by typing in “Lancastrians25” at the website checkout.

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