“Levelling up” isn’t a programme for change, it’s a con-trick, a catchphrase to hoodwink voters as fraudulent and cynical as the claim by Brexiteers that leaving the EU would deliver a huge financial windfall for the NHS.
Despite the councils in Sheffield and Leeds making a compelling last-ditch plea for high-speed rail in The Yorkshire Post last Friday, the overwhelming likelihood is that it won’t ever be arriving at a platform near any of us.
And that tells us everything we need to know about this Government’s view of the north – the occasional pot of money will be thrown our way in the hope of keeping us quiet, but nothing like the massive new investment that is needed.
This isn’t levelling up, or a newly enlightened view of how to make this region prosper, which would also help the entire country do well.
It is the same old weary, discredited politics that we have seen for generations, in which lip service is paid to the hard work and potential of an area that is home to a quarter of Britain’s population, but which gets only a fraction of the funding it deserves.
Manchester is likely to get its HS2 line, and the uncomfortable truth will probably be that from our side of the Pennines we watch enviously as the city forges ahead whilst Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Hull do not make anything like the same progress.
The prevarication and shiftiness over the whole project has all pointed one way, and the timing of this week’s announcement is illustrative of the cynicism with which the Government regards the north and its voters.
Its calculation will be that breaking the bad news to us now, two years after Boris Johnson won the election, gives Yorkshire roughly the same amount of time before the next poll to forget about how badly we’ve been let down.
Except that people won’t forget. They will remember the solid business case for what HS2 would bring – new jobs, new industries, new opportunities for the young. Briefings from the
Government suggest that there is going to be a pot of money for upgrades to trans-Pennine links, but this may not be the high-speed Northern Powerhouse rail that has also been long promised.
Even though new investment is welcome for a route in desperate need of improvement, it is only half the answer.
The whole point of Britain committing to high-speed rail was about creating an integrated new network, and not a series of piecemeal projects.
The concept only works if links between north and south, as well as east and west, are all transformed. This has long been acknowledged both in our region and by successive governments.
Anything less is a half-measure and always has been, because there is a limit to what can be done to squeeze improvements out of what is essentially a Victorian rail network.
A fresh start is needed if change that is truly transformational is going to be achieved and, disgracefully, we aren’t going to get that.
At least part of the reason is the naked political self-interest that lies at the heart of the north-south divide. Whilst Mr Johnson and the Conservatives were undoubtedly ecstatic at winning former Labour seats in the north, thanks to the party veering so far to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, their delight at that has worn off.
Tory MPs in the party’s southern heartlands worry about their own seats if too much spending is diverted northwards.
There is a gamble being taken by Mr Johnson – Labour may be gaining ground in the opinion polls, but it still looks some way off being a government-in-waiting.
Chuck a few bones the way of red wall seats with some new money for rail, and that may be enough to hang onto them come the next election.
That’s a risky bet for a Government mired in sleaze, which plays particularly badly with voters in the north, who work for lower wages than their counterparts in the affluent south-east.
We aren’t fools and resent being taken for them. The promise of better services between Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield – for which we may have to wait up to 20 years – isn’t going to make levelling up sound any less hollow than it does now.
We wanted and needed fast trains. Instead, a fast one has been pulled on us by the most brazen political conman of the age. Will we forget about it over the next two years? No chance.