Jayne Dowle: Why George Osborne is an unlikely ally in North’s transport battle

George Osborne. PA
George Osborne. PA
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I CAN’T say I recall much of what former Chancellor George Osborne ever said when he was in charge at the Treasury. The sands of time have passed over his tenure. I hear only faint echoes of “Project Fear” and “sober and serious”.

However, I certainly won’t forget what he says about rail services in the North of England. In a recent article in which he helpfully offers advice to Prime Minister Theresa May on how to relaunch her troubled government, he reminds us once again that the distance between Leeds and Manchester by rail is actually shorter than the entire length of the Central Line in London.

This fact, which he originally brought to light when his Northern Powerhouse idea was in its infancy, had already made a huge impact on me before Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, announced his dubious “plans” for transforming travel in our region.

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I happen to be very familiar with both cross-Pennine rail services and the Central Line, because I lived in the capital for 14 years and used it very regularly. Coloured red on the London Underground map, it stretches from Essex in the east to Acton in the West, calling at lots of important connection points such as Oxford Circus, Bond Street and Bank as it goes. Invariably, it’s crowded, hot and stuffy, but at least it exists and it’s generally quick and effective.

This is more than can be said for the current rail provision between Yorkshire and Manchester and beyond. Of course, there is a train. It often takes the best part of two hours from Barnsley in South Yorkshire, where I live, to reach Manchester. And this is via Sheffield or Huddersfield. It’s a journey that, frankly, hasn’t changed much since Victorian times. It’s simply not good enough for the 21st century.

For goodness sake, I live so close to Greater Manchester that I can see planes landing at the airport from my bedroom window. Yet it still takes me hours to get there, unless I drive at the dead of night when there is no traffic because in the middle of the working day the over-burdened Woodhead Pass or the congested M62 present a challenge to say the least.

Now, Osborne’s handy Central Line illustration has become even more interesting. Here we have Grayling, as the minister in charge, effectively abdicating all responsibility for improving transport in the North to well, the North. He says that it’s not the Government’s job to advance Crossrail from Hull to Liverpool. That, he points out, is the responsibility of business and civic leaders, who presumably have day jobs to do at the same time as securing and advancing a multi-billion pound transport and infrastructure project across several counties and major cities.

And here we also have a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now a London newspaper editor, arguing on our behalf. He is concerned that Crossrail can go ahead in London but not for the likes of us living north of the Watford Gap. Do you think that this would be happening in Japan, or China, or even the USA?

Only here. We must have the craziest transport policy in the world. I have to wonder whether Grayling and his department officials actually have access to maps and demographic figures. Do they not see that there are countless towns and cities across a huge swathe of the UK which would benefit from improved and swift public transport? Have they ever stood on a shabby platform in (insert name of any Northern town really) and wondered why it takes so long to reach anywhere?

No wonder more than 70,000 people have already signed the petition spearheaded by campaign group 38 Degrees, calling on the Government to support the Hull to Liverpool link and better rail provision between towns. I’m among them and I urge you to do so.

Meanwhile, down in London, does Grayling never look out of his window at the Department for Transport and look at all the people to-ing and fro-ing and wonder how they got there? His entire attitude represents a colossal failure of imagination. Too often government edicts centre on funding and investment; the actual people who would most benefit are left out of the equation.

I’m not just talking about jobs and increased opportunities for employment and education. I’m talking about a generally more mobile population able to take advantage of cultural attractions, shopping opportunities, broadening of horizons and a generally feeling that we are pulling in the same direction instead of being left behind in the shadow of London and the South East.

I don’t doubt that the good people of Wakefield and Wigan are being used as pawns in the political battle Osborne is waging against the current government from the safety of his newspaper office in leafy Kensington. However, I am pleased that the former MP for the Cheshire constituency of Tatton still thinks about his friends in the North. We need all the comrades in high places we can get because we haven’t got many in this Government, that’s for sure.

North tells Government - honour your promises