Future of the North: Getting transport right is the key

Future of the North: Getting transport right is the key

As a Northern developer we have a keen interest in how the regions are developing and what the future holds. Whether you look at Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield or Hull, it is clear that the fortune of individual places in the North is dependent on the success of all.

In the fourth article of this series, we take a look at the centrality of improving transport infrastructure to any future plans for the North.

We all know what the problem is: the UK economy is dominated by London to such an extent that the regions have not only suffered over the past few decades, but actually regressed. Only very recently has there been the beginning of effective political momentum to boost areas outside of London and the South East.

For too long the national economy has relied on London for growth and, because of that, everywhere else was allowed to whither. Consequently, investment was poured into the most profitable part of the country, creating a feedback loop which further confirmed the supremacy of the capital.

The obvious solution is to redistribute investment and rebalance the economy. The North isn’t so far behind because it is less capable; it is a case of money and priorities, both of which have been focused on London for decades.

The best example of this is the lopsided state of the national transport network.

The gap between the transport provision of London and the rest of the country is wide and becoming more severe every year. IPPR North, a leading think tank, calculated in 2018 that London receives 2.6 times as much transport funding per head as the rest of the UK – £4,155 per person compared to £1,600.

When the calculations were extrapolated back over the last decade, the result is even worse. If the North had received the same amount of money per head over that period, the regions would have benefitted from an extra £63bn in transport investment.

Part of the problem is that the major modern transport investment for the North is the HS2 high speed rail line which also happens to connect to, and benefit, London. Whilst the line itself may bring a lot to the North, this is in dispute. The latest reports are hinting that the line will eventually cost the better part of £100bn and only shave a minimal amount off journey times. In addition, it is more than a little bit suspicious that the Northern sections of the line are not yet signed off whilst the southern sections are being built already – students of the government’s dealings with the North over the past 40 years are right to wonder whether the Northern section will happen at all. With recent whispers that the whole project may be cancelled, it is sometimes hard not to see HS2 as a vanity project.

Where could the money be better spent? The answer coalesces around Northern Powerhouse Rail, previously known as HS3, which would revolutionise the railway network of the North. Travelling across the North is, at present, an unappealing prospect. You can either choose to use an overloaded motorway network, a crumbling A Road network or suffer on slow, congested trains which are literally decades out of date and travel on routes which are not fit for purpose.

The only really modern railway lines in the North are ones which connect to London – all the better, some say, for speeding talent and resources out of the regions and into the capital. It is generally true to say that you can get to London from any Northern city hours faster than you could reach the other coast.

However, the problem with framing the issue as a case of London versus the North is that the two parts of the country are not in opposition. A booming Northern economy is good for London, and the sooner those in charge of investment realise that, the better.

The North cannot run on pacer trains and old-fashioned tracks indefinitely and still be expected to compete with the rest of the world in the future. Investment is needed now, and it needs to be available for upgrading transport from East to West as well as from the North into London.

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