Rail plan that punishes London will also be a wreck for the regions | Philippe Inman


TMPs from the north and west of England who believed Boris Johnson when he vowed to level the regions will drown their sorrows this weekend. The Prime Minister’s flagship integrated rail plan turned out to be nothing more than warmed-up and piecemeal improvements to existing rail lines.

Leeds will be cleared to move forward with a tram system connecting the city and its nearest neighbors. A few electrification projects put on hold in 2017 have gained new life. But otherwise, the word “integrated” in the title of the document falls under the Trade Description Act.

Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Liverpool to Hull high speed link are on the back burner. In favor are much smaller projects that could, very likely, be underway by the next election.

Such was the panic within Number 10 over the need for clearly marked achievements by 2024 as the previous plan for a parallel high-speed network connecting major cities with each other and London – better known as HS2 and HS3 – had to disappear.

One aspect of this change, however, is likely to encourage those in areas that despise the south-east of England, not least for having spent much of the last three decades gobbling up the majority of infrastructure spending. And this is the severe punishment Johnson inflicted on the capital.

Transport for London boss Andy Byford warns in an interview with Observer this weekend, the capital “looks into the abyss” as it fights against the impact of the pandemic on its finances.

Aging trains will break down, signaling upgrades will be delayed, and bus networks will be cut unless next month’s funding review is no longer generous. Plans to support walking and cycling will evaporate.

Tourists may not mind that it takes longer to travel between attractions: superficially, London will be the same. Foreign companies may not be that generous. For them, the capital is the most attractive city in Europe and each year wins the foreign investment war. They can think again when faced with a political agenda that aims to level down.

As the former mayor of London, Johnson knows that thousands of foreign companies in the South East want to be part of his rich tapestry of export-oriented service industries. They benefit from high productivity levels, supercharged profit margins and a large pool of skilled and well-paid labor.

These companies are not going to move to Birmingham or Manchester because they are no longer in love with London. They will move to cities – on the mainland or beyond

– which strive to live up to its economic and cultural power. Only Edinburgh comes close as a competitor to the UK, and thanks to the Scottish government’s obsession with leaving the union, this alternative seems more parochial day by day. Just like Great Britain after leaving the EU.

It makes economic sense, over the next decades, to encourage businesses that are launching into the regions by providing them with better infrastructure. And to continue this trend with grants to companies to move away from the capital. There is no doubt that a more balanced economy would also support a strategy to reduce carbon emissions.

But killing London for the benefit of the regions follows the same argument made by many Brexit supporters: we must halt trade with the EU if we are to strengthen ties with the rest of the world.

When politicians pit London against others, it only serves to perpetuate ingrained prejudices – prejudices evident in Deborah Mattinson’s book Beyond the red wall. Yet there cannot be good economic results.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street knows he will say goodbye to Goldman Sachs and HSBC and their investments in Birmingham offices if those banks decide London is no longer for them.

Street openly says he needs a flourishing capital to provide a platform for growth – not just relocated banks, but a wide range of businesses that could migrate north with better rail links and stay put when public health, education, and subsidized arts and culture come in the same package.

Michael Gove knows that to treat London like a bulging piñata, swollen with financial candy that will spill if you hit it hard enough, is economic folly. He claims he will give us a definition of upgrade, perhaps before the end of the year, which hopefully recognizes that the nation needs London to thrive. He pays the bills.

Byford must win his battle for as much money as his transport counterparts in northern towns.


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