IN THE seven or so weeks since the general election, the many business leaders I have spoken with have, without exception, expressed relief at the result.
The economic recovery would continue under the business-friendly Conservative Party, they said, with the threat of Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister fading like a bad dream.
The honeymoon period couldn’t last forever however and it came to a sharp and juddering halt last week with the Government announcement that it was putting vital transport schemes on hold.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin delivered the news that electrification work would be “paused” on the Midland mainline and on the Trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester.
His announcement came after an election campaign during which the Conservatives repeatedly trumpeted their promises to invest in the region’s railways as part of their Northern Powerhouse economic plan.
The business reaction to the volte-face was strong. Ian Morrison, Yorkshire and North East regional leader at Big Four accountancy firm PwC, said: “If the region is to stand a chance of becoming a Northern Powerhouse, as the Chancellor has mooted for the past 12 months, the regions and cities of the North need to be better connected.
“Many of our current transport systems are at capacity and with aging stock. The fact it currently takes over three hours by train to travel the 130 miles between the two ports of Liverpool and Hull, is clearly not good enough.
“The UK regions all have an important role to play in driving growth for the whole of the UK. “Getting the right investment in our transport systems will better connect people and jobs, which is crucial if we want the region to fulfill its economic potential, so this announcement is a worrying set back for the northern economy.”
Paul Firth, a prominent Yorkshire lawyer and the chairman of Creative Sheffield, said the cities of the North must stand up together and demand that proposals to invest in this important infrastructure are reinstated at the earliest opportunity to address the imbalance between investment in the North and South of England. He added: “If this does not happen we can only draw the conclusion that the Government is content to continue to treat the North as a second-class citizen and abandon its pre-election promises.”
A joint statement from Roger Marsh OBE, chairman of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and Barry Dodd CBE, chairman of the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership, described connectivity as “the golden thread within our regional plan to grow the economy across Yorkshire”.
They said: “Improvements to the speed, capacity and reliability of our rail network are essential to meet the Government’s ambitious Northern Powerhouse plans. Our current rail network is creaking under its own weight and is not sustainable in the long term.
“Electrification of the railway lines is essential if we are to resolve the transport challenges we currently face within the region and between regions.
“We need Government’s commitment to addressing our barriers to growth, and it is disappointing news that this investment has been paused.”
Stuart Watson, senior partner for accountancy firm EY in Yorkshire, said businesses of all sizes must come together and express their opinions on transport infrastructure and other projects impacting the wider northern economy.
“They, after all, create wealth and jobs, and we need to hear what they want from the North’s infrastructure in order to create growth,” he added.
I can summarise what northern businesses want in one word. Investment. Which is why many in this region felt a sense of betrayal at the Government’s decision.