Greg Mulholland: North left stuck in sidings as our money speeds South

More money is being spent on London's Crossrail scheme than transport projects across the North, according to new research.
More money is being spent on London's Crossrail scheme than transport projects across the North, according to new research.
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WESTMINSTER is frothing about the scandal of David Cameron’s resignation honours list but here is a much more costly one for Yorkshire: the Government is spending more just on Crossrail in London than on all projects across the whole of northern England.

And the difference cannot be justified on grounds that more people live in London. A fresh study reveals that the Department for Transport will spend just £280 per person in the North over the next four years of Conservative government – compared with £1,870 per person in London.

Theresa May had scarcely eased David Cameron out of Number 10 before she made her contempt for the North clear. She has briefed that she doesn’t support former Chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse”, which looked to kickstart development in the North.

And with the North especially hit by weakening business confidence post-Brexit, she has rejected Liberal Democrat calls to help small and medium-sized firms through the British Investment Bank.

Now it is revealed she is spending more on transport down South by a factor of six to one. No wonder the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) calls this a “national disgrace”. The total spend on Crossrail – the newly-named Elizabeth Line – is due to be £4.6bn, exceeding spending on all projects in the North (£4.3bn) put together.

The North East will receive £300 per person, the North West £290, while Yorkshire and Humber will see a measly £250 against London for £1,900.

Liberal Democrats would like construction for HS2 to start in the North and end in London, not vice versa. And, actually, HS3 is more important for the North than HS2. There isn’t even a train link to Leeds Bradford Airport – such an obvious omission wouldn’t last two minutes around London.

I’ve nothing against a new line from East to West London, but how about a new train line linking East to West England in the North? Surely that is a higher priority, and would be an engine for growth benefiting millions of people.

Sadly, this lack of investment shows on our train network, as we travel on ageing, massively over-crowded bone-rattlers between Leeds and Manchester.

Anyone who has sped across France or Germany in recent years would have been embarrassed – and angered – by the different approach there to regional investment.

At the insistence of Liberal Democrats, the coalition did sign off significant improvements, including electrification of the TransPennine route and the new Leeds Station southern entrance – but freed of the Lib Dems, the Tories have reversed the decision to electrify the Leeds-Harrogate-York line where we still have Pacer trains, some of which are 35 years old.

Labour’s Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has decided to press on with the Garden Bridge vanity project across the River Thames while Leeds, the key regional centre and driver for the regional economy, remains the largest city in Europe without a light rail system.

The disparity is not just with rail. Take airports: the South has two-thirds of flights but a third of the population. That is why Liberal Democrats have been calling for more regional airports, but instead the Conservatives engage in civil war over whether Britain’s major airport expansion should be at Heathrow (in London) or Gatwick (near London).

And it is not just about big infrastructure, either. Counties such as Yorkshire have rural populations, yet rural bus services face cuts rather than investment. In my own patch of Leeds, we are crying out for improved public transport. Leeds is receiving £173m in lieu of the ill-fated Trolleybus scheme, but that hardly offsets lack of investment overall.

The vote for Brexit in the North showed profound unhappiness with our current political settlement. Northerners are a savvy lot, and we know we are receiving a raw deal from Westminster. If the Conservatives were genuinely a “One Nation” party, they would try to heal those divisions by listening to concerns of people in the North and investing in vital infrastructure that would boost our economy.

Yet there is a clear – and cynical – reason why the Conservatives hog investment for the South. All but a handful of Conservative MPs and Ministers represent Southern seats. Of course those MPs are going to push for spending in their patches, many of which are already affluent.

Under our dodgy electoral system, the Conservatives can win a majority to govern the entire country while showing little but contempt for the North, as well as the other nations of the “United” Kingdom.

By investing yet more in the South – while giving so little in the North – the argument for yet more investment around London becomes self-justifying, as more people move there in search of prosperity. This is the chain we have to break. And the best way of doing it would be investing in transport in the North.

Greg Mullholland is the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West. He is also the party’s national and community campaigner,

The University of Leeds.

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