Do you remember the Northern Powerhouse? George Osborne and David Cameron dreamt that one up long before the nice-but-dim concept of levelling up.
Nice because it’s a genuinely good idea that should be pursued by governments of all persuasions; dim because it’s just another high-wattage slogan that ends ups delivering little by way of light.
The Northern Powerhouse sort of sounds good too and even has its own website. But there’s a difference between creating a shiny website and making something work for the people who live in that bit of England that isn’t London.
Then there is its offshoot, Northern Powerhouse Rail. Tomorrow a government announcement about high-speed rail links in the north is expected.
According to many stories, not least from Arj Singh, deputy political editor of the i newspaper, Boris Johnson is going to water down a promise to fund such links in the north and will instead upgrade existing routes.
A key part of the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail has always been a new section between Leeds and Manchester. Now it seems that Johnson lost an argument with Chancellor Rishi Sunak over funding.
Instead, we will have upgrades to the existing transpennine track. You know the one: painfully slow and out of date, with York to Manchester taking about as long as York to London.
Anyone who travels on trains in the north knows there are problems on many routes, especially on the east-west axis. They needed sorting out long before calamitous amounts of money were blown on HS2 so that people could get from London to Birmingham a little quicker.
Tomorrow’s announcement is also expected to confirm that the final phase of HS2 high-speed rail between Birmingham and Leeds will be scrapped.
In many senses, HS2 always seemed like a bad idea, hugely expensive and environmentally damaging. But if we must swallow all that, a high-speed link that stops in Birmingham is a botched job that doesn’t help the north at all.
Why didn’t the government prioritise the north first? Easy answer: because it’s the north. Boris Johnson might have a temporary interest in the north thanks to those red wall seats – “Buckets of Beaujolais, some of these northerners seem to like me!” – but the underlying message is the same. Don’t get your hopes up if you live in the north (but do live in the north, as it’s the best).
You may recall that northern newspapers came together to launch what was called the Power Up The North campaign, aimed at telling ministers that the country needed rebalancing.
This morning the Manchester Evening News and other Reach newspapers share the same front page, while the Yorkshire Post got in early with a plea last Friday, followed up by another this morning. Further north, the Northern Echo makes its own case today.
Regional newspapers now are undeniably weaker than they were, and we are all the worse for that. But they still have power when they come together like this.
If would be nice to think that the government would listen to this massed newspaper choir, but don’t bet your season ticket on it.
Of course, it’s possible that everyone has got this wrong, and that tomorrow’s announcement won’t be so gloomy; possible but the sharp side of unlikely.
What’s the likelihood that they will try to befuddle us with meaningless statistics and dodgy accounting?
As the indefatigable Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News says in her Postcards from the North bulletin…”
“This quote from a senior civil servant about the overall plan is worth repeating in full: ‘This is a half-arsed attempt at building a high-speed rail network in the North. What sounds like a big pot of money is really a lot of smaller scaled back projects piled together into one big announcement to hide that they are in reality delivering fewer things over a longer period of time. It’ll be downgrading the North compared to the levelling up that other areas are getting from the benefits of HS2 and Crossrail over the decades to come.”
Believe what you wish about levelling up, but let’s leave with this from Pat Oliver, who ten years ago contributed a wonderful word to a Yorkshire Post feature about dialect: “Kallifudging, meaning chicanery or underhandedness”.
Oh, Pat, we’re up to our necks in kallifudging today.