WOE betide any politician – or national journalist – attending the Question Time election special in Sheffield who complains about their train journey.
This is a daily occurrence for commuters that ITV political editor Robert Peston discovered when he was delayed last week. “Welcome to the Northern Powerhouse” was one of the more polite responses.
But the anger – less than half of rail operator Northern’s trains now run on time – masks a subtle point which Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon should recognise.
The North is not the problem here. It is, however, the solution if regional inequalities arising from the economy’s over-dependence on London and the South East are to be tackled.
This is why leaders deserve short shrift if they ignore this difference. And, as politicians hoping to head the next government, or be key players in any coalition, they need a clear plan to galvanise the Northern Powerhouse.
I first moved to Yorkshire in 2002 when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were at their peak. The Cabinet was packed with Northern MPs but, looking back, Labour did not do enough for the region, though John Prescott, perhaps ahead of his time, did try to introduce regional assemblies. The problem was that Blair did not back him and Michael Howard, the then Tory leader, claimed that his party could return to power in 2005 without making electoral gains here.
And while Howard’s successor, David Cameron, accepted that this naive stance was wrong, it took until 2014 for the Northern Powerhouse to launch. By then, the Pacer trains should have been scrapped. Yet they’re still in service. And, yesterday, a one carriage train constitued a rush-hour service on at least one Leeds commuter route. London (or Surrey) would not tolerate this.
In the intervening decade, other areas – notably the capital – surged further ahead when it came to transport spending and other infrastructure investment, like flood defences, that underpin the economy.
It also explains the public’s irritation when politicians come here to patronise and promises that are soon broken – just as the Tories did over rail in the 2015 and 2017 elections.
They’ve still not learned. Asked by The Yorkshire Post to set out his rail vision for the North, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – or his people – submitted a piece that paid scant reference to the performance of the Northern or TransPennine Express rail franchises. They’ve been told to come back when they have something constructive to say.
Such complacency, so soon after the Chris Grayling era of ineptitude at the Department for Transport, also explains why the North’s collective voice is getting louder. And with reason.
After last year’s botched timetable changes, rival newspapers teamed up to launch the One North campaign on behalf of readers and passengers. The collaboration generated national attention and made politicians realise that failures of transport policy, planning and investment were causing significant hardship and disrupting the economy.
It was the precursor to this summer’s even more ambitious Power Up The North campaign which involved nearly 40 titles and challenged the major parties to come up with a comprehensive policy package for this region.
It has made a difference – Jake Berry, without it, would not be sitting in the Cabinet as the Northern Powerhouse Minister – but momentum must be maintained until pledges are honoured.
This is given added validity by the PM’s failure to call an emergency meeting when the floods first hit the Don Valley and Midlands – this was a greater misjudgment than his delayed visit.
What has followed, after indignant victims left Johnson lost for words, has been half-hearted gestures that will keep the bureaucrats in business – and still no appreciation that a river’s entire catchment area needs to be considered when planning flood defences.
And while Labour has certainly exploited this failure of leadership, it conveniently forgets that its past indifference to the North is one reason why people voted in favour of Brexit here. Furthermore Corbyn indicated on Tuesday night that he’ll invest an extra £70bn in Scotland to neuter SNP calls for independence. At whose expense? The neglected North?
As such, Britain’s leaders must travel to Yorkshire with solutions rather than soundbites. Yes, Northern Powerhouse Rail, a high-speed line linking the region’s great cities, is a potential economic game-changer, but so, too, is the skills agenda and devolution of powers. They’re critical too. In short, political leaders will only be on the right side of the North-South divide if they start to view the North as a land of opportunity and potential. But, if they can get the trains to run on time in the meantime, so much the better.