North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Prioritise local transport over high-speed rail – Nandy

While most northern political and business leaders were winning easy headlines in the autumn by expressing outrage at the government’s Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for axing the eastern leg of High Speed Rail 2 between Birmingham and Leeds (HS2b) and downgrading planned improvements to Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) between Manchester and Leeds, this website felt it was a lone voice in recommending that the IRP be accepted in the North East.

We took a little comfort in the support of a solitary Green councillor from Sheffield.

Now, though, we learn that a much more significant political figure is also in agreement – namely the Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Lisa Nandy.

She is quoted in Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England, the excellent book by Financial Times political journalist Sebastian Payne, who was raised in Gateshead, analysing why Labour lost so many ‘red wall’ seats in the 2019 general election.

Reading the book somewhat belatedly, having received it as a Christmas present, I came across the interview with Nandy, MP for Wigan in Greater Manchester.

Her prescription for towns, she says, includes significant investment in regional transport, especially buses and local train services. ‘If you’d asked people in the north of England how they wanted transport spending allocated, they wouldn’t have started with High Speed 2.

‘Now I’m not knocking High Speed 2, this country needs proper transport infrastructure. But before you can get any kind of political buy-in from the public for a project like that, you’ve got to sort out our regional trains’.

This is exactly the argument put forward on this website on November 19, when it was proposed that the North East should prioritise the re-opening of local rail lines such as the Leamside Line, Stillington Line and Weardale Railway, and the regional bus service improvement plan, over HS2 and NPR.

Although Nandy does not use the word devolution in her interview with Payne, it is clear from what she does say that she believes in some form of decentralisation: ‘The only way in the end that it’s going to start to change is if those decisions are made far closer to home’.

Another well-known politician – or rather, former politician – who had something to say to Payne relevant to and supportive of a viewpoint expressed on this website is George Osborne, Chancellor of Exchequer from 2010 until 2016, who launched the devolution agenda for England in 2014.

Reflecting a phrase used by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July 2021 (though not in the same words) and taken up by this website on January 3, Osborne told Payne that he questioned whether the Levelling Up Fund for small infrastructure projects below £20m could lead to structural change or was just, as Johnson put it, ‘dabbling’:

‘Proof will be in the pudding’, Osborne told Payne. ‘Over the next 18 months we’ll see in budgets and spending reviews whether all we get is a kind of levelling-up fund, in which case I think the world will move on. Then we will wait for another government to come up with a serious long-term plan.

‘Or the levelling-up fund is a bridge to a much longer-term approach, which is what the country wants’.

As this website argued on January 3, following the Autumn 2021 Budget and Spending Review it does now look as though there is little prospect of new money for the next three years for levelling up apart from the relatively small funds for relatively small projects already announced. The government will, as Johnson said, dabble, and the world, as Osborne put it, will move on. Meanwhile the North East will wait for another government or, at best, the Fair Funding Review for which it has already been waiting since 2016.

*Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost Heartland, by Sebastian Payne, is published by Macmillan. ISBN: 978-1-5290-6736-1. £20.