Back to Top

For this Government all roads lead South

Diana Johnson MP has had the article below published in the New Statesman magazine. It can also be read at
If the economic challenges posed by Brexit loom large for Britain as a whole, they are even starker for Northern England.
There’s rarely been a more relevant time to ask not what the country can do for the North, but what the North can do for the country.
Westminster spends much time debating supply-side micro-economic issues, such as education and skills, where the objective is to make people and communities ready for jobs in sunrise industries that we assume are coming. 
However, can we now be certain that those opportunities will arrive? 
The post-1945 confidence that future generations can expect a higher standard of living than their parents looks doubtful. The most recent statistics for the most deprived areas point to the first downturn in life expectancy in peacetime since Victorian times. 
This all adds up to an urgent need to address some fundamental macro-economic questions.
Britain needs to make our own luck, just as we’ve been doing in Hull. Local effort attracted UK City of Culture and Siemens to the City in recent years.  Now Hull seeks a City of Culture legacy and a post-Brexit export market in continental Europe for our offshore wind energy industry. For all we have achieved in recent years, since 2010 against the backdrop of some of the heaviest Government cuts, Hull’s regeneration is still in its infancy and can easily be rolled back.
The fundamental economic challenge facing the country is to escape the vicious circle of austerity and stagnant growth by building the broad-based, resilient economy that generates the sustained growth needed to reduce debt and meet our basic needs - from financing social care to house-building.
If we are ‘taking back control’ of immigration we need to ask whether sufficient work is being done to cope with the consequences for our economy and public services. There are questions about whether enough is being done to forge the global alliances needed after Brexit, about what we will manufacture in future, and to whom we will sell. Should we continue placing so much reliance on the service sector, especially the casino end of finance and banking? 
Underpinning all this is the challenge of improving productivity. It is here that addressing the North’s needs becomes such a key consideration. 
The Government needs to get real about allowing the North to take pressure off the congested and inefficient South East, thus boosting overall UK GDP growth. 
Fewer industries need to cluster in the South East corner of the country in the digital age.
To assist the regional economic ‘rebalancing’ that has been talked about since 2010, the so-called Northern Powerhouse’s creaking transport network needs a fairer share of transport infrastructure investment than the £13bn allocated in this Parliament. This is less than the amount spent on London’s Crossrail 1.
Northern tax-payers and fare-payers are absorbing the heaviest above-inflation rail fare increases for many years. For what?
The Government continues chasing the endless transport capacity needs of the South East, as exposed in IPPR North’s latest figures. These show that London is set to get five times the investment per head of Yorkshire and the Humber over the next four years.
Rather than acting to end the unfairness, Grayling is keener to attack IPPR North and use statistical ruses to paint a false picture of the North getting the most lavish state investment in rail and roads. However, when Grayling points to Transport for London projects that receive no central government funding, it only highlights the effort also being put into securing large-scale private investment for London and the South East. 
The same effort has not been made for the North, where attracting private money is not so easy.
Hull saw the privately-funded Hull to Selby rail electrification blocked by Tory Ministers. The North’s local bus services have been cut, our cars bear the damage caused by the potholes backlog and we await long-promised road upgrades.
After years hyping Government rail electrification plans, Grayling recently embraced bi-modal diesel trains to justify cancelling electrification schemes in the North. Bi-modal technology is not ‘new’, contradicts the claim of being “environmentally responsible” and dashes any hope of delivering truly high speed services for passengers and freight.
Last Summer, Grayling told the North to ‘get in the driving seat’, but we know that Transport for the North’s advisory powers, easy for Whitehall to block, are inadequate compared to those of Transport for London. Beyond phasing out Pacer trains, aspirations to improve the Northern transport network by 2050 do not meet the country’s needs over the next few decades. Commercial space travel is due to arrive decades before Transport for the North’s vision for 2050.
We’ve seen in other parts of the UK in recent decades, such as in East London’s Docklands, what’s possible when governments get serious about regenerating a sub-regional economy for the long-term. They don’t invent pre-conditions about adopting, on a permanent basis, made-in-Whitehall models of local or regional government, and then cite insufficient co-operation as an excuse for withholding investment.
Surrey MP Chris Grayling’s recent reappointment as Transport Secretary does not inspire much confidence that key questions will be faced or that we will see any Government rethink that grasps the reality – in deed rather than rhetoric - that the North’s revival is central to the future prosperity of the whole nation. 
For example, Grayling recently committed to moving forward with HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail 2 “in lockstep”. Does our rail industry have the capacity to achieve all this at once? 
Wouldn’t priorities have to be set? I suspect that Grayling simply doesn’t want to tell us what his real priorities would be.
The fact that large South Eastern schemes, such as London’s Crossrail 2 and the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Corridor, are so much further advanced than any of Transport for the North’s plans is a strong indicator of what to expect.
Diana Johnson
Labour MP for Hull North
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Email

Diana's twitter feed