It is the second Saturday in March and Newcastle United, having decided to take the F.A. TrainCup seriously after all, are drawn away to Liverpool in the 6th Round. You and your two mates have tickets, but have decided against getting one of the buses. Instead, after a good Friday night out, you get up at 9 a.m. and meet under the clock at the Central Station at 10.15 before boarding the 10.30 TransPennine Express to Liverpool. But this actually is an express and exactly two hours later, you disembark at Lime Street, get a taxi and are in a pub close to Anfield, suitably full of Geordies, by quarter to one. The game which kicks off at 3 p.m. (it is not televised due to a dispute between clubs and television companies), ends in a 2-0 victory to Newcastle. Getting back to Lime Street in time for the 5.30 to Newcastle you are back in the Toon for 7.30, with plenty of time for a few celebratory pints.

All a pipedream? Well, without commenting on the prospects of a 2-0 win at Anfield in the quarter-final of the F.A. Cup, the idea of getting to Liverpool by train in 2 hours must in itself seem pretty prosperous.  Any readers who have done the 167 mile journey will know that it usually takes at least 4 hours on the so-called TransPennine Express and heaven help you if you haven’t booked a seat, especially between Liverpool and Leeds. Yet the prospect of a 2-hour train journey from Newcastle to Liverpool seemed to be what George Osborne was holding out to voters in the North recently….

Yet even here all might not be quite what it seems. The proposal for this £15 billion ‘Crossrail for the North’, with a new tunnel through the Pennines, all aimed at helping to revive the economy of the North, didn’t actually originate from the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Instead it came from the leaders of five major city councils in the North: Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle.  It was only because they had put forward the idea in the first place that Osborne was able to suggest it himself.

It is of course also true that Osborne’s own seat is on the margins of the North of England, in Cheshire and bearing in mind that it is over 20 years since there was a Tory councillor in Newcastle and the situation is similar in the other major Northern cities, somebody might just have had a word with George and suggested that he might make more of an effort to listen to what Northern political leaders are saying. After all we are now less than a year away from a general election….

And then something strange happened a couple of days after the ‘Crossrail for the North’ suggestion. There was another Crossrail proposal put forward; this time for an extension of the original Crossrail which links up different parts of London.  Was it just a coincidence that this scheme is also costed at £15 billion? The cynics might say that the proposal for the North was only accepted in principle by Osborne, to deflect criticism from yet more transport spending going to London…

Now, let us be clear here.  I am not against money being spent on good public transport for London. I understand how congested it is and that Londoners have the right to a decent system of public transport. However, there are two other things which cross my mind.

Firstly, London and the Southeast are so congested, because since 1979 so much of the British economy has been geared around making profits for the City of London, at the expense of traditional industry in other parts of the United Kingdom, including our own region.  If the economy was run more fairly and for the benefit of all, no matter where they came from, then some of the pressure on land, housing and transport in London and the Southeast would surely be eased.

Secondly, there has been an incredibly un-level playing field in transport spending in recent years, which has contributed to the ever growing economic gap, alluded to above and is a major reason why one has to look at Osborne’s pronouncement of a ‘Crossrail for the North’ with some scepticism.

In 2011 the Institute for Public Policy Research North found that, whilst transport spending per head of population in London was £2,700 it was only £5 per head in our own North East of England.  This shocking difference tells you everything about the priorities of this government and I think that we can only look at Osborne’s pronouncement on improved rail links in the North in this context.

Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North said at the time that, “skewed spending benefiting London and the South East is nothing new but these new figures are truly shocking and will strike most people as deeply unfair. Of course every country has a capital city and some of London’s transport infrastructure wouldn’t be happening without the Olympics. But if the government continue to use a system that reinforces the dominance of London and the South East we’ll all be worse-off in the long-run as the South becomes more congested while the North continues to fall behind in terms of growth.”

The Northeast and indeed the wider North of England are squeezed between an ever more rapacious London and the Southeast and a Scotland, which will probably vote No in the referendum on 18th September, yet subsequently be given more devolution within the UK and yet more advantages vis-a-vis the North of England.

It is heartening to see the leaders of five major Northern cities working together on the Trans Pennine Rail project. However, this kind of cooperation across the Northeast and the wider North has to be developed much further.  Is it not time that Northerners faced up to the political realities of the situation we find ourselves in – and really started to stand up for ourselves?



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