Northern uproar over transport investment highlights impact of former chancellor, by Jamie Carpenter

Nearly ten years ago, when I visited Blackburn as part of research for a special report on changing patterns of deprivation in England, local leaders highlighted the Lancashire town's poor rail service as a key factor holding back the economic development of their area.

Despite the efforts of a long-running campaign, the town’s rail service to Manchester remains a source of frustration. Writing this week in the Guardian, the newspaper’s north of England editor, Helen Pidd, explains that a 21-mile rail journey from Manchester to Blackburn takes 49 minutes on the hourly "fast" service. A work experience student dispatched by Pidd to take the journey "will probably be on a Pacer train, a juddering ‘bus on rails’ with no tables and a diesel engine so loud she won’t be able to make a phone call. Wifi? We are still dreaming of plug sockets", she writes.

It is this sort of juddering journey that explains why, by signalling his support for the capital’s £31 billion Crossrail 2 project just days after rowing back on a government commitment to fully electrify the rail route between Liverpool and Newcastle, transport secretary Chris Grayling has sparked a major row.

Back in 2015, the government made a commitment to electrify the entire Transpennine railway from Liverpool to Newcastle, with Grayling’s predecessor Patrick McLoughlin describing the scheme as being "at the heart of our plan to build a Northern Powerhouse". But the current transport secretary said last week that the railway between Leeds and Manchester is unlikely to be fully electrified, and that he is reviewing a plan to build two platforms at Manchester Piccadilly station to cope with extra trains.

Days later, Grayling signalled his support for London’s Crossrail 2 project - albeit with the caveat that the project would need to improve its affordability. The announcement sparked howls of protest from politicians in the north and left the government in the curious position of appearing to break one manifesto commitment on rail at the same time as committing to build something that wasn’t in the document.

The northern uproar that followed Grayling’s Crossrail 2 announcement is genuine, and has led to renewed claims that the north of England gets a desperately poor deal compared to London and the South East when it comes to spending on infrastructure. According to an analysis by think-tank IPPR North, the north of England would have seen £59 billion more over the last decade if it had received the same per person for infrastructure as London.

However, the London mayor’s office, which since the snap general election had been concerned that the government had gone cold on Crossrail 2, argues that comparing regional transport expenditure on a per capita basis does not properly account for the need or demand for transport. It says that a comparison of the amount of users is more suitable, pointing out that almost two-thirds of the 1.5 billion rail journeys in Great Britain in 2015/16 were in London and that the amount of public cash spent per passenger journey in London is below the Great Britain average and one of the lowest among all the regions.

Political leaders in both London and the north have their own compelling reasons why transport infrastructure improvements are vital for their respective areas. The government has questions to answer over why, having only recently supported both schemes, it has decided that Crossrail 2 can go ahead, but not the project to fully electrify the rail route between Liverpool and Newcastle.

The row also underscores the impact of former chancellor George Osborne, who now looks to have been a greater friend to the north than people may have realised. Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse initiative has created a clear expectation that the government will deliver on its promised investment in the north’s infrastructure, and the new mayors in northern conurbations that he helped create - in particular Andy Burnham in Manchester - have been extremely vocal in criticising the approach taken by the current transport secretary.

Osborne may no longer be in government to drive forward the Northern Powerhouse agenda, but the metro mayors that he was instrumental in creating now have a key role to play in ensuring that the government realises his vision.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning // jamie.carpenter@haymarket.com


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