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Why I’m all for George Osborne’s cynical pitch for Northern votes

26 June 2014

4:04 PM

26 June 2014

4:04 PM

When John Prescott used to wax garrulous about a ‘superhighway’ from Hull to Liverpool, everyone assumed it was a wheeze to spray southern taxpayers’ money across the region he saw as his power base. When George Osborne decided to ‘start a conversation’ this week about a super-city along the same route, an English equivalent of Germany’s Ruhr valley connected by yet another decades-away high-speed rail project, everyone assumed it was about recapturing votes in northern conurbations where Tory MPs and councillors are an endangered species.

But on past form you’d still expect me — ardent northerner and rail buff that
I am — to embrace this back-of-a-Downing-Street-envelope concept, however cynical its origin; and yes, I’m ready to do so. It makes at least as much sense to upgrade the trans-Pennine rail route to ‘HS3’ for Osborne’s vague estimate of £7 billion as it does to go the whole hog for £42 billion and counting with HS2 from London to the north.

As for the ‘super-city’, doubters say it’s a recipe for strife between rival local authorities, and that any entity that has Saddleworth Moor in the middle of it will never make a conurbation. But the jockeying for position would bring out the best in each of the component cities, like some urban X Factor contest. Liverpool, currently hosting the International Festival of Business that is Britain’s biggest trade fair for more than half a century, might grab the sales and marketing portfolio. At the other end of the line, Hull might extend its role as 2017’s ‘UK City of Culture’. York, advertising itself as ‘the northern tiger’, will clamour for a curve in the route that will allow it to get in on the act. Leeds, still reeling from the boom and bust of the past decade, might find a way to raise its game at last.

As for Manchester — conference destination, hub airport and birthplace of free trade, computer science and the miracle material that is graphene — it has the most progressive administration of any English city, and the most coherent networks of civic, business and university bigwigs. It should clearly lead the whole project, however much that puts its neighbours’ noses out of joint. I’ll be happy to chair some blue-sky sessions to get them all started.

This is an extract from Martin Vander Weyer’s column in this week’s Spectator.

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