Andrew Vine: Sci-fi dreams no use for a powerhouse in slow lane

WHILST stationary in traffic on the M62 with nothing to do but admire the scenery around Halifax, my friend from London turned to me and said: 'Is this the Northern Powerhouse, then?'

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 24th May 2016, 6:00 am
Memo to David Cameron. Come to the M62 in a driverless car and then ponder whether to invest in Northern Powerhouse or space tourism.
Memo to David Cameron. Come to the M62 in a driverless car and then ponder whether to invest in Northern Powerhouse or space tourism.

He wasn’t jeering, but being in the book trade and fond of a metaphor, just pointing out that it’s as stuck as we were.

On days like this, when the country’s highest motorway turns into its most elevated car park, mention of the Northern Powerhouse has a very hollow ring indeed.

Still, mustn’t grumble. Before I know it, I won’t be hunched over the wheel of a car in a three-mile tailback on a day when it’s too hot to have the windows shut, but too choked with exhaust fumes from the lorries parked alongside to have them open.

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Instead, I can sit back and be chauffeured by a driverless car to the space port, from where I blast off into the unknown, on the way up getting a bird’s eye view of the nose-to-tail traffic on the M62.

Or so the Government would have us believe, with its vision of the future set out in the Queen’s Speech, or, looked at another way, the blueprint for a forthcoming episode of Doctor Who.

It was impossible not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Queen at having to read out some of the drivel she was presented with. Driverless cars. The development of a commercial space port at a cost of £150m.

And meanwhile, where is the major injection of cash to transform the Northern Powerhouse from good idea into reality?

Or the guarantee of enough money for flood defences to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe of five months ago?

There isn’t any.

Instead, we heard yet more assurances from Business Secretary Sajid Javid that it’s all going to be alright, even if he did admit in The Yorkshire Post that mention of the Northern Powerhouse is enough to make people roll their eyes in frustration.

Too right it does.

Mr Javid also mentions an air of cynicism about the project, and that is hardly surprising given the Government’s record.

Warm words from him, and the Chancellor, are worthless without the funding to back them up.

Paying lip service to the North, as they have done, increasingly looks like a sop that is doing nothing to close the economic gap with the South.

London gets Crossrail and its commuter belt gets adequate flood protection. We get neither enough for transport nor defences against the rivers.

We even get less than the South East to spend on repairing the potholes that turn so many roads into farm tracks.

Mr Javid is doubtless familiar with the term “jam tomorrow”, which pretty much sums up the Government’s position on the Northern Powerhouse, with its vague insistence that it will all somehow happen, without any money being put in.

The trouble is, it isn’t doing anything about the jams today.

As Yorkshire’s economy is slowly strangled by a congested and creaking transport network, for the Government to make putting yet more cars on the road a priority – this time without drivers – is little short of absurd.

As a gesture of solidarity to everyone else, perhaps each can be equipped with a robotic hand that drums its fingers on the steering wheel in frustration like the rest of us.

The Government’s trumpeted commitment to the North has been severely undermined by the decision to move civil service jobs from Sheffield to London.

There has been no convincing reason offered for this retrograde step, which weakens Whitehall’s links to, and knowledge of, the region and its needs.

That the jobs in question are inextricably linked to the Northern Powerhouse concept can only increase the air of cynicism surrounding the project.

Our great cities have done everything asked of them to get it off the ground, but their commitment simply has not been matched by the Government.

There is a serious risk – maybe even a likelihood – that in a decade’s time, Yorkshire will look back with regret at a promising project that never came to fruition, or at least never achieved its full potential because it was chronically underfunded and commitments were never honoured.

Yet funding will be found to encourage space tourism.


What is the point?

If it ever happens, it will be the prerogative of a tiny handful of the super-rich and of negligible economic benefit to the rest of the country.

How infinitely more valuable to Britain’s economy, and to the people of Yorkshire, would be firm financial commitments to the Northern Powerhouse with its prospects of more jobs and prosperity.

Memo to Prime Minister – let’s forget about blasting tourists off into space, eh?

There’s plenty to be getting on with down here on Earth.