[from the Yorkshire Post, Wednesday 23 August 2017]
Political leaders from both sides of the Pennines called for the North to join forces to make sure the Government delivers its promises on transport improvements today.
A transport summit in Leeds heard calls for the creation of a Council of the North to balance the lobbying power of London and the devolved nations
The event also called for a major overhaul of the way the Government decides which transport schemes to fund to ensure the process is fairer to areas outside London. Business and council leaders met in Leeds in response to a series of Government announcements which appeared to downgrade its transport commitments to the North.
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake said: “We’ve done so much research, we’ve done so much thinking, what we have to do is make sure from now on we speak with one voice, one North, and really getting out there and making the case for the step change in investment in the North that we need.” She said transport improvements were the key to achieving the North’s economic ambitions. “You would not be having these conversations in the South-East,” she said.
Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham, a cabinet minister in the last Labour government, told the summit the country was “inherently London-centric” but Brexit was an opportunity for change.
“We have to get ourselves organised so it is as easy for the Government to speak to the North of England as it is to speak to the London business community,”
he said. Mr Burnham said his experience as a Treasury minister was that the system is “rigged” in favour of the capital because of the way major transport schemes and their potential economic impact are analysed by government officials. He called for a “social weighting” to be included in the process so areas which already have strong economies do not enjoy an unfair advantage.
Greater Manchester’s mayor said the extra money secured for Northern Ireland by Unionist MPs in return for supporting the Conservatives showed how political pressure could be exerted on the Government.
“I think we’ve got to, yes, have a respectful conversation with the Government but at the same time show our political steel and bring MPs together across the North from all political parties and ask them to start organising in Parliament,”
In a letter to Mr Burnham on the morning of the conference.Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said the current government was the first “for decades to make Northern infrastructure a priority”. He claimed frequently quoted figures showing the gulf in transport spending between the North and London were “flawed” and “inaccurate”. IPPR North, the thinktank behind the figures, stood by their analysis. In his letter, Mr Grayling defended his suggestion that using trains which can run on both diesal and electric power could be an alternative to electrifying the entire length of the trans-Pennine route between Manchester and Leeds.
“I want the best possible improvements for passenger journeys as soon as possible,” he said.
Writing in The Yorkshire Post yesterday, Mr Grayling said:
“I’m hugely excited about the prospects for transport in the north of England. “Tremendous opportunities are opening up to connect the major Northern cities with modern new links, and deliver the extra capacity to tackle congestion and overcrowding. “But ultimately, it is not up to central government to grasp these opportunities.”