Unity is the only real way forward
31 July 2017 | Author: Dr. Stuart Thomson, Head of Public Affairs, Government + Infrastructure, Bircham Dyson Bell

The recent announcements from Chris Grayling on Crossrail 2 and rail electrification seem to have driven a divide between the North and South of England but if any investment is to be secured then unity needs to be the way forward.

The cities of the North, under the new Mayors and existing leaders, have taken offence at the Government's announcements. But these also play into a wider fear that the previous emphasis on balancing the economy of the UK is starting to slide and that the once ubiquitous #NorthernPowerhouse is being consigned to the dustbin of history.

There appears to be a lack of consistency where it comes to transport projects following the General Election. Whilst Labour's manifesto committed the party to 'Crossrail of the North' and Crossrail 2, the Conservative's forgot to mention Crossrail 2 but did sign up to 'Northern Powerhouse' Rail.

Whilst the benefits of individual transport projects, of course, have to stack up, if the arguments are allowed to become 'north vs south', 'us vs them', then everyone's chances of success will fall. Everything becomes too political and is liable to delay, fluctuations and changing moods.
So what do we need to think about?

The Mayors – Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, will play a key role in the relationship between the Mayors and the Government. As the most high-profile Conservative Mayor, he will need to decide whether to keep out of these current discussions, side with the Government or go with the other Mayors. That decision will be critical.

The other Mayors need to be careful that they simply do not become sidekicks to Andy Burnham and it should also be remembered that many parts of the North have chosen not to be represented by a Mayor (or for some, not yet).

South = London = Westminster elites – there appears to still be a great deal of mileage in blaming political elites based in the South. This, in turn, means London needs to work harder with the rest of the country. Whilst many bodies have undoubtedly been doing this, there appears to remain a lack of trust or a suspicion of London that needs to be overcome. Maybe Government needs to hear the message of London and the rest of the country working together a little clearer.

Brexit - the needs of different parts of the economy may not align nicely during the Brexit negotiations and in the eventual deal that is struck. The reality is that if London fails from Brexit that will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the country and everyone is aware of this. Whilst the main media emphasis is on which sectors will 'win' or 'lose' this will knock-on to parts of the country as well. Transport projects are critical elements of how many parts of the country, especially across the North, are planning to deal with the consequences of Brexit.

The future of devolution – we appear to be at a real decision-point regarding devolution and the Government's continued commitment to it. The Government has important decisions ahead of it regarding powers and finances that it could devolve but whether it will or not is as yet unclear. Again, there could be differences between what London and other cities achieve. The added complication is what Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may look for post-Brexit as well. How the transport debate is dealt with will provide some important pointers on the future of devolution.
The worst thing for everyone concerned would be for the discussion to become portrayed as a battle of the projects. All those mentioned are needed are very real economic, social and environmental reasons. If that is the route then the chances of success for anyone is limited. The common 'enemy' is an over-centralised state which leaves cities, north or south, with very little ability to act in its own best interests. So Transport for the North and other devolved transport bodies need total commitment from all of us.

That is what North and South need to keep firmly in mind.

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