Announcing Crossrail 2, the £30bn London underground track, days after dumping plans to electrify key northern rail lines has made Chris Grayling the ire of more Northern Mayors than you can shake a stick at. Whatever your opinion, you can’t argue that the timing isn’t galling.
With Crossrail 2 not even getting a mention in the Conservative manifesto (where Northern Powerhouse rail did), the anger is justified. Research by IPPR North shows that the North would have received an additional £59bn of investment over the last decade if it had received the same per person for Transport as London does (you can read their petition here).
Rail electrification was once a central tenant of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse: the first step in rebalancing an economy dominated by London and the South-East, “the biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victoria era” as Cameron described it in 2012.
But Chris Grayling has never been a poster boy of devolution. His dislike of the new Buses Bill, giving local government the ability to franchise bus routes, was no secret in Westminster. While Crossrail 2 passing through his constituency of Epsom has been attributed more to his design than is probably due, it’s a fitting depiction of his priorities as transport secretary. Reinvestment in economic success rather than rebalance.
Of course, this wasn’t the only headline news this week with Greg Clark announcing that the government would begin talks with Andy Street and the West Midlands CA in regard to a second devolution deal. The setting for the announcement was telling – Birmingham University promoting the UK battery and renewable industry, key interests of the government’s Industrial Strategy. It seems that, for now, when this government speaks of devolution, it’ll be in the place-based economic terms that Greg Clark and the BEIS Department are keen to promote.
While Grayling is reluctant to help the Labour mayor with the largest mandate in the North, the events of this week cannot simply be attributed to party politics – Labour’s Sadiq Khan met with Grayling last week to discuss the project and issues a joint statement with the secretary shortly after Crossrail’s announcement.
If the Northern mayors fail to make the case for transport investment in language that chime with the government priorities (namely the Industrial Strategy), it’ll be, as Steve Rotheram described it, a return to ‘business as usual’ with the reassertion of a traditional southern bias in transport investment.
So, what next? This debacle has been an opportunity to see the Mayors’ much vaunted ‘powers of convening’, attributed to the mayor whenever faced with complaints that their ‘hard’ powers remained limited.
And they are working. Andy Burnham’s role in convening of a summit by the end of August of northern leaders in government and business shows the political leadership bestowed upon the mayoral office. In short, the new mayors’ get people in the room.
It is time for Mayors, MPs and Council leaders to work together more closely on a regional basis – utilising groups like the All-Party Parliamentary for Greater Manchester or Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire would be a good start. Northerners do rightly feel outraged as crowded pacer trains remain the norm while London and the South-East are privy to yet more investment, it’s high time that that voice is heard.