HELPFULLY, Theresa May and Boris Johnson have both made very convincing cases for the post of Northern Powerhouse Minister to be elevated to the Cabinet. Unhelpfully, neither realises it because of their complacent ambivalence towards the regions.
The outgoing PM marked the Northern Powerhouse’s fifth anniversary with a bucket list of empty promises and this admission to a London-based newspaper: “It must remain a top priority for government to do it all it can to unlock its vast potential.” What has she been doing for the past three years?
This admission of failure came 24 hours after Boris Johnson, still her likely successor, enthusiastically told the Tory leadership hustings that Crossrail 2 – a new state-of-the-art railway line across the capital – was a “fantastic project”.
Though the former mayor of London also referenced Northern Powerhouse Rail, he reiterated his opposition to HS2 because of the high-speed line’s impact on his outer London constituency.
He omitted to mention that HS2 is critical to Northern Powerhouse Rail’s business case – or that the first Crossrail line, due to open last December, is rising in cost from £14.8bn to £17.6bn and will not open until at least 2020, all while £1bn-worth of new trains sit idly in the sidings while 479 drivers are paid £25m a year to do nothing.
Yet, while Mr Johnson’s leadership rival, Jeremy Hunt, appears committed to both HS2 and a new east-west rail line from Hull to Liverpool, it can’t go on like this – the North now needs its own Cabinet Minister with the power to veto any Government policy which risks disadvantaging the regions.
Even Mr Johnson’s close ally Jake Berry, the current Northern Powerhouse Minister, admitted that he had insufficient powers – and this in the month when his remit was extended in another Downing Street token gesture which amounted to ‘fake news’.
And David Lidington, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, gave an intriguing response during a visit to Yorkshire last Friday when he conceded: “You need someone who is chivvying Ministers in other departments and saying ‘don’t forget the Northern Powerhouse’.”
He also added that there was “a very strong case” for a political big-hitter – “whether it be at Cabinet or just below Cabinet” – to have this co-ordinating role on behalf of the 15 million people who live and work here.
Indeed this necessity – one of the policies put forward in the Power Up The North campaign which The Yorkshire Post and 33 newspapers launched a fortnight ago – is further justified by the presentation which Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines made to transport leaders here.
A year after rail services were brought to a standstill here by botched timetable changes, and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s refusal to accept any responsibility, Mr Haines revealed the extent to which commuters here had been betrayed. His briefing paper to Transport for the North last week, seen by this newspaper, was damning. It had been “a brutal couple of years” and passengers, particularly those in the North, had been “bearing the brunt”.
Appointed to Network Rail last summer, he was very frank about his organisation’s shortcomings. He also said performance and passenger satisfaction had been in “steady decline” for seven years – and that new lines were needed because the network was at breaking point. “A congested network that has become increasingly difficult to operate, with single incidents capable of causing significant knock-on delays,” he disclosed. “Train service performance, our basic promise to passengers, has not been good enough.”
After this candid admission, Mr Haines confirmed the buck-passing culture epitomised here by the current Transport Secretary’s serial obfuscation and his indulgence by the Prime Minister too weak to sack the man who still trends daily on social media as ‘Failing Grayling’.
“Look how many interfaces there are,” he went on. “How many players. It is far too easy to look to others for detailed instruction and direction. And find others to blame when things go wrong.”
And he concluded: “The railways are vital economic arteries of our nation and they play, and can play an even greater part, in delivering better connectivity across the North and helping to unlock the region’s economic potential. Currently the railways aren’t delivering for its customers.”
This is not revelatory. Quite the opposite. It has, for years, been blindingly obvious to everyone who has to endure the North’s haphazard rail services and ageing rolling stock every day as Mr Johnson – just like Chris Grayling did two summers ago – appears to demand a second Crossrail line in London to take national precedence.
Yet, due to the inability of London-centric Ministers to look beyond the M25, it is further reason why the next Northern Powerhouse Minister must sit in the Cabinet and challenge colleagues every week to Power Up The North. For, if they were in place last summer, I venture that rail passengers would not have suffered so much unnecessary misery.