North v South and East to West, or the triumph of politics over intractable economic divide

Anthony Rae writes  (Sorry for the title! Let me explain.)  Nothing illustrates the dominance of superficial politics over long-term strategic planning intended to overcome deep-rooted divisions in the economic geography of England than the changing fortunes of two spatial concepts of different orientations and magnitude: first North-South (of ‘NvS Divide’ fame, or if you like, London versus the Rest), and then East-West, in this case across the Pennines.

And it’s a politics with its polarities reversed: you’d expect it to be the Left, with a clear constituency to serve, that would be insistently calling for transformation and investment but paradoxically the key moves have come from the Right, prospecting for northern votes. Add in just one thoughtful television programme, and suddenly we’re in new territory. How unpredictable it all is.

For such a long time after the failure of traditional regional policy there has been institutional indifference and apathy about the ability of government interventions to act on a North-South divide that affects so much more than just GVA, and on – the particular manifestation that concerns us – striking inequalities in transport investment and services between London and the regions. It was the various IPPR North reports that sought to substantiate the latter analysis – On the Wrong Track Dec 2011 and Still on the Wrong Track June 2013 – combining with the continuing advocacy of PTEG; here are their statements just for the current government – Transport funding gap grows even wider March 2011; New Treasury figures show massive transport funding gap between London and the regions Nov 2011; ‘widening funding gap’ Nov 2012; Transport ‘funding shift’ exposed Feb 2013; and most recently Dec 2013 ‘public spending on transport in London is £545 per head compared with … £213 per head for the North East, £265 for the North West, £246 for Yorkshire and the Humber’. There are various briefings here.

Whilst the IPPR figures and claim has been challenged somewhat by the Transport Committee in 2012 they were given new credence and prominence by the expert analysis of Evan Davis’ two BBC television programmes ‘Mind the Gap: London versus the Rest’ March 2014 – ‘weighty, well-constructed, thick with content and argument’ Telegraph. (Summarised here; clips from episodes 1 & 2 and some of the graphics are here. Davis’ accompanying article is here. Jonathan Schifferes’ RSA blog makes the typical mistake of talking only about London ). They examined the gravitational forces which can effortlessly pull AstraZeneca’s research base southwards from Cheshire to Cambridge, but also the opportunity for an economic counterbalance to be created by investment in transport infrastructure – not in road but in rail – along the east-west transpennine corridor stretching between Liverpool to Hull at its full extent, with Manchester-Leeds at its core.

There’s an interesting diversion into the academics of economic geography we could wander down with LSE’s Henry Overman ( ) but let’s stick with the politics because that’s proved to be much more significant. When it came to the Right-Left Divide I noted earlier it was therefore Conservative Chancellor George Osborne who – whether figuratively picking up the baton from Davis’s programmes; or inspired by Sir David Higgins’ call a week later in his HS2 Plus report to “integrate HS2 into the existing network to improve … journey times not just North/South, but also East/West from Liverpool to Hull’ report and speech; or maybe recalling the Prime Minister’s call from May 2010 to rebalance the economy; or as his party’s election strategist – got to make the transformatory commitment on 23rd June 2014:

We need to think big. We need an ambitious plan to make the cities and towns here in this northern belt radically more connected from east to west – to create the equivalent of travelling around a single global city. As well as fixing the roads, that means considering a new high speed rail link. Today I want us to start thinking about whether to build a new high speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds. Based on the existing rail route, but speeded up with new tunnels and infrastructure. A third high speed railway for Britain. … I want to make sure we don’t just commit this money year-to-year, but commit money over many years, to long term projects that drive local growth. … So step one in building the Northern Powerhouse is a radical transport plan so that travelling between cities feels like travelling within one big city.”

And it was Osborne again who today (5th August 2014) presided over the launch of the One North report that started to fill in the detail of the commitment (see separate post here). Let’s not overlook the policy significance of this moment. When questioned on the Today Programme by (as it happens) Evan Davis and asked the $64 question -‘If you had to choose between a £15 billion Trans-Pennine HS3 and a £15 billion Crossrail 2 with a higher cost benefit score because congestion or economic returns are higher in London, which would it be?’ – the Chancellor said that he wanted both. And note these are two rail (not road) schemes being supported, and that with these commitments plus HS2’s £35+ billions, what’s left in the exchequeur for a resurgent roads programme? Has Big Rail finally shunted Big Road into the sidings, under a Conservative-led government?

Whereas, although it was Labour’s (now Lord) Adonis who started the policy push leading to HS2, it was Shadow Chancellor – and Morley MP – Ed Balls who then tried to undermine it, until chopped off at the knees by Manchester’s Labour leader Sir Richard Leese. In the same way that it has been voices from the Left that have queried the importance or very existence of the North-South Divide (therefore no need for any spatial or infrastructure interventions by way of remedy), or who urged colleagues to stop talking and thinking about it lest they ‘risk alienating southern voters’.

But, just to be politically even-handed, let’s also remember who started this Trans-Pennine corridor project in the first place. As I recalled when reading the Chancellor’s statement, and as Sir David Higgins noted in his March speech, it was: “… the 3 northern Regional Development Agencies under the umbrella of the Northern Way [who] established the Northern Way Transport Compact to support work on transport priorities and to identify measures to support the North’s economic growth. Over the next 6 years this group, with the full support of its members, published the Transport Compacts Work. One of the early wins has been the Northern Hub strategy already underway here in Manchester. But their report [Northern Way 2007 paras.2.25-27] also concluded that there is a broad consensus around two other points: that high speed rail would be transformational to the North’s economy; and the need to enhance the trans Pennine corridor.”

And who was it, destructively and ignorantly, who stopped all that development work ‘in its tracks’ immediately on entering office in 2010 by abolishing the RDAs and the Northern Way on the grounds that they were ‘wasteful, costly, top-down impositions on local areas’? None other Conservative Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP – and previously leader of Braford Council.

It has taken 4 years to overcome that piece of short-term, small-minded political thinking, fortunately now trumped by others – of all parties and none – with considerably more vision. The One North report envisages that by 2030 – just 16 years away – there’ll be a ‘New tunnelled trans Pennine route at 125 mph’ providing ‘direct connectivity with Manchester Airport, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and Hull’ and the ‘Recasting of HS2 in Yorkshire – bring forward Leeds-Sheffield section in conjunction with new trans Pennine route’.

Now that will be the triumph of politics over intractable economic divide.