Northern Powerlessness

Paul Salveson on Tory vanity projects

One of George Osborne’s more interesting policy interventions was ‘The Northern Powerhouse’. For a while it seemed it might have some traction, through an unlikely alliance between a Tory chancellor and a Labour city leader, Manchester’s Richard Leese (with the powerful figure of chief executive Howard Bernstein behind him). After Osborne’s departure from government, the Northern Powerhouse ran out of steam. A relatively unknown junior minister was appointed to take responsibility for the project, but it lacks traction.

However, in between editing the London Evening Standard, Osborne found time to set up a new body, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, to try to breathe life back into his baby. This is a collection of the great and the good of Northern business, with about as little accountability as the North Korean government. It has its own agenda, which tends to be narrow and exclusive. It achieved temporary fame, or notoriety, for organising a conference which managed to have a speaker’s panel that was almost entirely male (and needless to say white and middle class).

The board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership represents corporate power which is mostly in, but not of, the North. In all honesty, major businesses which are truly Northern-based these days are hard to find. Yet there’s no representation of the North’s flourishing SME sector, let alone its vibrant voluntary sector. Local government is in there as the junior partner, with the inevitable Richard Leese as a member.

Rail has been a key area of interest to the Powerhouse Partnership. But no, not sorting out the mess that our local and regional services plunged into last year, nor rebuilding the North’s rail manufacturing base. The priority is on vanity projects – and HS2 is the mother of all vanity projects. Chugging along behind, routed on the slow line, is ‘HS3’ sometimes referred to as ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’.

The idea is to link up the northern cities on an east-west axis, from the Humber (and York) across to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. This has a bit more to be said for it, though again it could be accused of being a political vanity project. The route seems designed to please all the political leaders along the route rather than achieve an alignment that could realistically happen. So the city of Bradford, for decades a railway backwater, will get HS3. But it will be at the expense of huge amounts of tunnelling which will make the project, in all likelihood unaffordable.

Meanwhile, the relatively new Woodhead Tunnel, offering a relatively easy route across the Pennines, lies disused apart from carrying some electric cables which could be re-routed. This isn’t an argument for continuing Bradford’s ‘siding’ status – the solution to Bradford’s rail problems is ‘Bradford Crossrail’ which would connect the two existing termini (Forster Square and Interchange) and open up huge opportunities to improve the West Yorkshire local rail network. But that isn’t anything like as sexy as having your own high-speed trainset.

Meanwhile, the Powerhouse Partnership continues to lobby, in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, for the regeneration benefits of HS2 (see the recent New Economics Foundation report for Friends of the Earth). Recently, NPP’s director, Henri Murison, issued a statement saying that unless the Tories back HS2 they will lose several Northern seats. This is laughable. Most people in the North when asked will tell you that HS2 is something we can well do without and the priority should be the local rail network, at least as far as transport investment goes. The impact of HS2 on the North could actually be negative, with wealth sucked out of the region in a southerly direction. There may be some localised regeneration benefits around the termini at Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, but nowhere else. In a further example of insanity, the proposed Birmingham terminus at Curzon Street will be situated a mile from where most trains actually call, at New Street. So much for connectivity.

So whether the Tories will or won’t pull the plug on HS2 remains to be seen, but if they did, I can’t see it costing them any votes. The fact they may well do it for the wrong reasons is neither here nor there. A more interesting question is Labour’s attitude to HS2 and to the wider issue of Northern regeneration. Labour should have a clear policy to abandon HS2 and redirect the investment into a national programme of investment which benefits cities but also towns which have suffered economic decline. We shouldn’t keep on fuelling the London boom by adding to existing north-south transport capacity. The NEF report makes the case for re-balancing the UK by improving existing routes, re-opening some that were cut by Beeching, combined with new trains and electrification.

As for the Northern Powerhouse, if it is to have any credibility it needs to be democratised and reflect and support the creative energies that are developing in the North but find no place amongst the suits that make up the so-called ‘Partnership’.

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson is a visiting professor in transport & logistics at the University of Huddersfield.