The ConservativeHome manifesto said that although “London is a vitally important asset to the British economy…we musn’t forget that England alone has two of the world’s greatest conurbations…Unlike comparable cities in America, Germany and France, England’s ‘core cities’ under-perform the national economy as a whole. Merely raising the core cities to average levels of productivity would amount to the single most important UK growth and jobs opportunity of the 21st century.”
In our view, elected city-wide mayors with more powers would be well placed to help drum up investment, and “provide the democratic legitimacy required for the ongoing devolution of power from Whitehall to city areas”. We also call for them to have a hand in Lords appointments.
One of the key ways of unlocking the potential of the northern cities is “connectivity – transport and communication links that boost local productivity and attract investment,” the manifesto argues. “This is true not only of conurbations that are centred on a single major city, but also of those with multiple centres like Germany’s Ruhr valley and Holland’s Randstad. There is no reason why the northern conurbation shouldn’t be as well connected as London is.”
For this reason, the focus on the North of George Osborne’s plan for an HS3 link between Leeds and Manchester is welcome. However, there is a big question about whether a service that could reduce a journey time from 55 minutes to between 26 and 34 minutes would be the most effective means of providing northern connectivity.
It would surely be better to provide other, smaller, projects with a wider reach that would provide better trains and faster journeys – and more quickly. As our manifesto said, HS2 itself “won’t even reach the North until 2032 at the earliest” and , “won’t reach certain key cities like Liverpool at all”. The Mayor of Liverpool is already objecting to the HS3 plan, on the ground that it is offers “no new connectivity or capacity” to the city.
As for HS2 itself, there is a case for running a high speed line north from Heathrow – the original Conservative plan in opposition. There is much less of one for sticking to Labour’s route. But for Downing Street, the project has become a symbol of Conservative commitment to the North. Goodness knows why, since northern voters don’t care for it much.
Osborne’s critics argue that he is hung up on grands projets. But he has a record of commitment to smaller ones. One of his pluses as Chancellor is his driving of transport investment outside the south-east: in the M4 overhaul in South Wales, the guarantee for the Mersey Gateway Bridge and, not least, through the Northern Hub – the upgrading of lines between Manchester and Sheffield, Preston and Bradford.
The most effective means of boosting the economy outside the greater south-east is simply to keep going. As for HS3, our manifesto said that “its very name says all we need to know about Whitehall’s order of priorities. It is time to overturn the London-centric mentality that fails to recognise the untapped potential that lies within other parts of the country.”