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Transport and creating a voice for the North of England

15th August 2018

Christopher Peacock, Head of Grayling Manchester, looks at the growing calls for a collective voice for the North of England and how transport can help achieve it.

There is a growing desire to see the North speaking in one voice. Frustration with the lack of Government action to address the growing economic divide, our repeatedly failing infrastructure and Brexit, has seen the Mayor of Greater Manchester call for the need for the North to come together and create their own vision for the North of England.

Attempts to create this single voice, however, have not been particularly successful. Firstly, Northern England has never been one homogenous region. Whether it is the rivalry of the cross-Pennine rose counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, or city rivalries such as Newcastle and Sunderland or Manchester and Liverpool.  We have never truly been a single entity that has worked collectively together for our mutual benefit. We are proud to be northern, but our pride in our local identity is far stronger.

Similarly, the lack of a pan-northern body that brings all of the key actors together has been a hinderance. Andy Burnham’s first attempt to create this fell flat when he mooted the idea of a ‘Council of the North’ nearly a year ago. This has now evolved into the ‘Convention of the North’ which is holding its first official meeting in September which will include civic and business leaders and representatives of trade unions and community groups. However, the Government has announced a rival group consisting of the Chairs of the eleven Local Enterprise Partnerships across Northern England called “The Council for the North”. It no coincidence that the Government chose this name once Burnham had to change the name of his original idea. As Charles Caleb Colton said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Of all of the issues which affect everyone in the North of England, transport is the one which can actually bridge the differences that divide us. The crisis on the railways in the North over the summer has reminded us that we simply can’t go on as we are.

This has led to more collective work beginning with campaigns for Northern Powerhouse Rail connecting the Northern cities and compensation for passengers affected by the rail chaos.

Transport for the North is leading the way in making the case for pan-Northern strategic transport improvements which are needed to support transformational economic growth. Whilst transport can help bring the North together, it shouldn’t be the end of the journey. The North has a greater economic output of Wales and a bigger population than Scotland yet doesn’t have the devolved powers of either nation. The voices for greater devolution and more power for the North is growing but that co-ordinated voice is still missing.

Whether either Andy Burnham’s Convention of the North or the LEP’s Council for the North can become the voice of the North is still unknown. There will still be obstacles in the way, and local parochial priorities will still exist, but whilst the crisis on the North’s railways continues there has been no better opportunity to create a voice for the North and challenge the Government to ensure the North gets the investment and opportunities we need to rebalance the UK’s economy.

Grayling Team

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