Bernard Ingham: Leadership needed to fire up Northern powerhouse

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COMING from Hebden Bridge, I was born at the centre of a linear city. They did not call it that in my day. Nor did they recognise the concept. In any case, we did not care for city folk; we regarded ourselves as country boys – and proud of it.

Yet the fact remains that Hebden Bridge, hidden away in steep-sided valleys five miles from the Lancashire border, sat 70 years ago between two manufacturing centres each with a major port – Liverpool and Hull – at its extremity.

In the late 20th century a motorway – the M62 – was added to the railways to speed, among other things, the flow of exports.

Now Chancellor George Osborne wants to make – or, more accurately, re-make – a “Northern powerhouse” out of this linear city concept, with improved rail communications at the heart of this strategy. There will, of course, be critics who say that this is an election gimmick to win Tory votes. It is a reasonable charge. This Chancellor does nothing without political intent.

But that is no reason to decry the idea. The basis of a linear city stretching from the Irish Sea to the North Sea is a reality. Let’s make it work for the benefit of the nation and not least Yorkshire and Lancashire folk.

This brings me to my problem. It all depends on the chosen methods. So far – and I concede it is early in the day – the great project has been set in the context of devolution, backed up by new regional development institutions.

This is dangerous. I speak as one who has always seen Yorkshire as at least as viable an economic entity as Scotland, both with similar populations.

But, given the venomous anti-English attitudes of the Scottish National Party and their unfinished independence business, nobody in their right UK mind should encourage more devolution these days. Northern Ireland has just extorted a few more billions of English money in the context of devolution and no doubt Wales is next in the queue, perhaps even for independence.

Careless talk about English devolution could not merely end the UK after 300 years as a national entity but also fragment England, the most powerful of the four nations and the UK’s major wealth creator.

In any case, it is entirely unnecessary. What it needs is for Hull, Leeds, Sheffield, York, Manchester and Liverpool and the towns and cities between to come together to promote the area, encourage inward investment and channel it on a reasonably equitable basis to where it is most likely to flourish.

George Osborne cannot build a resurgent Northern Powerhouse alone; it requires self-help to an agreed plan. We need unity of purpose, not to mention linear city leadership.

This brings me to another worry. Where are we going to find this civic leadership? I asked a well-informed journalist friend working at the heart of the linear city if he could name for me the leaders of Hull, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool councils. He was completely stumped.

It may well be that these civic leaders feel they are doing a good job by their own lights.

If so, they have a very narrow view of their responsibilities. Indeed, I wonder just how much they care when over the last seven years they have not set to work the unemployed to clean up the North from the Mersey to the Humber. Where is local initiative?

Certainly, not one of them is a name to conjure with as head of a linear city project. They are largely anonymous not merely to the outside world but, as I have proved, in the linear city itself.

As for chucking billions of pounds at them to build the new trans-Pennine Jerusalem, I have the gravest reservations. For decades local government, overmanned and under-resourced with wit and effort, has overspent. That is why Margaret Thatcher conceived the poll tax to curb their excesses through wider accountability. Council leaders helped to kill it by extortion.

Now, when not sanctioning vast payouts for mediocre chief executives, they seem to spend their time complaining about Government cuts while hoarding cash by the billions of pounds.

It is easier to blame the coalition than their own failure to economise and prioritise, having been party to the overspending that helped to pile up the debts the country faces.

In Yorkshire these moaning minnies should feel very uncomfortable when, by common consent, Gary Verity, CEO of Welcome to Yorkshire of Le Grand Départ fame, is thought to have done more to promote Yorkshire than the lot of them put together. They know what they’ve got to do now.