RAIL IN THE NORTH:WHAT DO THE PEOPLE WANT?

 

 

UP THE JUNCTION

 

The travelling public of the North deserve a proper say on what they want from their rail services.

 

This week we’ve had more announcements from on high about HS2, and backing for HS3 from Manchester to Leeds. Sir David Higgins, Chairman of High Speed Two Ltd is an excellent man but who is he talking to before he makes this pronouncements? City region leaders but is that enough? Not if you look at the rows that have broken out across the North in the wake of Sir David’s announcement.

 

Why is Liverpool being left unconnected from HS2 and HS3? Where should the stations be located in Leeds and Sheffield? On the very day eyes were focused on what will be happening in 2027, there were protests about current services between Lancaster and Barrow. And fundamentally whilst one must respect the overwhelming view of city region bosses that HS2 is good for the North, there are the doubters who believe it will just make it easier to work in Borisland (the South East).

 

So how do we solve the democratic deficit? Sir David himself calls for northern cities to speak with one voice forming a new body called Transport for the North. The problem is Sir David not everybody in the north lives in the city regions. We need an elected Council of the whole North to allow the people a chance to formulate policies on rail, the economy, the environment etc.

 

CHESHIRE DYNAMO.

 

Michael Jones will be a happy man following the announcement that Crewe is to be an HS2 hub rather than Stoke. The leader of Cheshire East council takes no prisoners in his drive to bring investment and jobs to his authority. Indeed he may harbour ambitions to lead the whole of Cheshire. He recently called for a unitary authority to be restored for the county. I understand the demand did not go down well with his near namesake Cllr Mike Jones, the leader of Cheshire West and Chester and a leading figure in the Local Government Association. Conservative Party rules may have been breached.

 

It is an unfortunate spat between the Tory politicians but Cheshire is fortunate to have two leaders who, in their different ways bring good leadership to the county.

 

LABOUR PARTY CENTRALISATION.

 

The complaint by the outgoing leader of Labour in Scotland that the party treated her organisation as a branch office had me reflecting on the party’s organisation in the North.

 

When I started as a journalist in the seventies the North West Labour Party was headed up by a fearsome gent by the name of Paul Carmody. He was master of all he surveyed in the region and had no fear of Prime Ministers. He told Harold Wilson where to go when the PM objected to Carmody’s plans to change the boundaries of his Huyton constituency and berated Jim Callaghan for being late for a factory visit. Regional officials should be given back some of those powers as they know what’s going on in Lancashire and Yorkshire.

 

OUTSTANDING BROADCASTING.

 

Brave Huddersfield doctor Geraldine O’Hara is reporting every day on the Today programme about her experiences treating Ebola patients in Africa.

 

Her reporting is of the highest standard as she vividly describes her life amongst those suffering from this dreadful disease. She gives us a full picture of the tragedy but also the rare moments of joy as some patients recover.

 

Although she will not seek it, I hope her reports are acknowledged by multiple awards in due course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HS2: THE LAST STRAW FOR BALLS?

 

 

Ed Balls is becoming a real liability to the Labour Party. His close association with Gordon Brown was one of the reasons why Ed Miliband didn’t appoint him Shadow Chancellor when he became leader three years ago. It’s often forgotten now that Alan Johnson was Ed’s first Shadow Chancellor.

 

Balls gloomy forecasts about the economy are now seen as over pessimistic. His hasty action, when Children’s Secretary, in sacking Haringey Social Services Director Sharon Shoesmith has led to a massive pay off this week. While that news was coming through, angry Labour MPs told the new Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh that Balls should stop messing about with the HS2 project. This is the issue that is set to be the first big test of the Miliband-Balls relationship.

 

I met Ed Balls in Manchester last week and tried to find out if the negative vibes he had been sending out about this vital rail project for the North was just about keeping costs down or the start of Labour’s disengagement with the project as a matter of principal. Balls told me it was the former, but then failed to reassure me that even if spending was kept within current figures, Labour’s support was guaranteed.

 

That’s been the problem in recent weeks. Balls has been sending out signals that its not just the summer cost increases that he’s worried about, but that he might like to use the money on other things if he gets into power.

 

Then there was the removal of Halewood MP Maria Eagle from her job as Shadow Transport Secretary. Labour sources tell me she was “incandescent” at not being told about Balls Brighton conference remarks about HS2.

 

The leaders of Leeds and Manchester councils received high praise from Transport Secretary Patrick McLouglin for their support for HS2 at a conference in Manchester this week. When the city’s leader Sir Richard Leese joined the minister on the platform I asked the councillor for his assessment of what Ed Balls was up to.

 

Leese claimed that Mary Creagh was as keen on HS2 as Maria Eagle, although hours later Creagh was parroting Balls heavily caveated views to that meeting of Labour MPs. However the council leader went on to tell me that it would be “irresponsible” for his party to go into the next election opposed to HS2.

 

It has even been suggested that Balls has been getting some grief from his wife Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. They have neighbouring constituencies in West Yorkshire. HS2 is planned to run close to the community of Altofts in her Normanton. Pontefract and Castleford constituency and 100 people turned up at a meeting to discuss it with her. I mentioned this to Mr balls who said I’d been staying up too late reading the wrong articles.

 

Reports suggest Balls may not come off the fence till next spring or even closer to the General Election. This is irresponsible. Doug Oakervee, the outgoing chairman of HS2 Ltd confirmed to me at the Manchester conference that all party consensus was vital to potential investors.

 

Ed Miliband should tell Mr Balls to issue a statement backing HS2 if the current budget is kept to. If Balls resists he should be sacked. Labour has suffered before when its leader refused to deal with a troublesome Chancellor.

 

There are a number of potential successors. Two, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and Shadow Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves were at a Downtown Leeds event recently and were very impressive by all accounts.

 

 

 

TORIES CAN BE NORTHERN CHAMPIONS

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I never expected to say this after Eric Pickles destroyed our regional development agencies, but the party has a chance next week to position itself as the defender of the North.

 

The private consensus in Brighton was that Ed Balls was preparing us for a Labour government to scupper HS2. His remarks, and those of other party spokesman after his speech on Monday, went beyond legitimate worries over escalating costs. Balls has got his eyes on the £50bn projected cost of HS2 for other projects. The problem is that in practice that money has been assembled for this scheme and would not automatically be available for health or schools.

 

How depressingly familiar all this is. I thought the Olympics marked an end of timid party squabbling Britain unable to take the big decisions at the right time. In fact we are late with this scheme. The West Coast main line is already over capacity south of Rugby. That’s why places like Blackpool are denied a direct service. North of Rugby HS2 would connect our great northern cities like Leeds and Manchester and crucially allow the existing rail network to improve the service to towns and cities not directly on the HS2 line.

 

There are broadly three groups opposed to HS2. There are the small but vocal number of people directly affected by the line who’s homes are already blighted. We must sympathise with them and compensate them very generously. I know how it feels. My home was demolished for a roundabout in the 1960s.

 

There is the London lobby already campaigning for Crossrail 2 oblivious to the historic scandalous imbalance in transport investment between the capital and the rest of the country.

 

And now we have elements of the Labour Party and others who want to spend the money elsewhere. Their argument ignores the point I made above that £50bn won’t be available to be transferred, and it fails to answer the question of what will happen when we are trying to use a Victorian railway two hundred years after it was built.

 

So in Manchester next week I would suggest the Tories seize the initiative. They will be meeting in a building that symbolises the need to move on when it comes to rail investment. Manchester Central station closed in 1969 and is now their conference centre. The government are investing in the Northern Hub, the Ordsall Chord, and electrifying the Liverpool to Manchester line to dramatically improve services on the existing network across the North.

 

The Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin should burnish his credentials as a former miner and claim that it is the Tories who have the best interests of the North at heart in backing HS2. They certainly need some arguments after Labour’s conference in Brighton.

 

RED ED.

 

I asked last week for some distinctive policies for Labour to campaign on and to be fair we got some. The promise to scrap the bedroom tax and the energy price freeze are the best indications yet of how different an Ed led party is from how his brother would have run things.

 

These are concrete proposals with a definite left wing thrust. The more the energy companies squeal the more will people identify with Ed. The claim that, in response to world market forces, energy prices go up like a rocket and down like a feather rings true with hard pressed families in the North.

 

The question is how broad this appeal will be? Are there enough struggling voters in the South to join Ed’s crusade or will they be frightened off as they were when Neil Kinnock was in charge?

 

 

 

ON ILKLEY MOOR BAHT HS2

 

HIGH SPEED RAIL

 

At a meeting at the Yorkshire Show earlier this month, the HS2 project was apparently given the big thumbs down. Perhaps Dales farmers have more pressing things on their minds, but it does illustrate that this £40bn project is dividing opinion across the North.

 

The report on opinion across the Pennines was given at the annual get together of the North West CBI and MPs where Dave Watts, the St Helens North MP pointed to the escalating costs and said the project was “masquerading as a northern scheme”. This reflects fears that the huge investment in one project could be used as an excuse not to fund other infrastructure schemes across the North.

 

But Blackpool Tory Paul Maynard is a fan. He told the assembled business people that cities linked by high speed rail had prospered. Although a supporter he said reduced journey time was not the key reason he was backing HS2. It would increase capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) something he was particularly in favour of. Maynard said his campaign to get a direct train service from Blackpool to London was currently being blocked because of lack of capacity on the WCML south of Rugby.

 

Maynard also criticised the tone of the High Speed rail Campaign who have recently launched a “your jobs or their lawns” attack on wealthy objectors to the line in the Chilterns. The Tory MP preferred positive campaigning for further transport investment in the North. Now that we’ve got the Northern Hub rail improvement scheme based on Manchester, we should be thinking what the next project should be. Maynard pointed out that this was the way Boris Johnston approached things. The Mayor of London was already demanding Crossrail 2.

 

Other contributors to the discussion included Alan Rigby, Head of Corporate Banking at HSBC. He felt the two hour journey was just about right for people with work to do on laptops while Len Collinson believed that technology would reduce the need for people to physically meet.

BANK LENDING.

 

This topic is being debated everywhere and our gathering held at the magnificent and expanding Chester Zoo, was no exception. Andrew Miller is the MP for Ellesmere Port. His Commons Science committee is about to publish a report entitled “Bridging the valley of death”. It conjures up the nightmare for many SMEs in their search for funding. Miller will be calling for better links between the entrepreneur, funders and universities.

 

Paul Maynard came to the defence of bankers saying they had to apply different criteria in the post 2008 world. They were being ordered to lend and build up their reserves at the same time.

 

Alan Rigby of HSBC said the problem sometimes lay with SMEs. Their bids could lack knowledge of their real needs. Banks are not always the answer. Equity options were often better.

 

NORTHERN REVOLUTION PART TWO.

 

Downtown’s recent discussion on how the North should be governed was taken up at the Chester meeting. Dave Watts once again condemned the abolition of Yorkshire Forward and the North West Development Agency. He hinted that Labour might restore them but I had to point out that senior shadow ministers had already said they would live with the patchwork of Local Enterprise Partnerships.

 

However there seems to be all party support emerging for some overarching northern council to tackle issues like transport, the economy and skills. Conservative Paul Maynard favoured this approach.

 

On the economy in general there was a feeling at the meeting that the corner is being turned which possibly explains the resurgence in Tory morale at Westminster recently. Ed Miliband will need to get his row with the unions over quickly to try and re-establish his opinion poll lead which has evaporated.