Following his party’s stonking victory at December’s General Election, Boris Johnson visited the former Labour heartland of Sedgefield, vowing to repay the trust of voters in the north who switched to the Conservative party and helped deliver an 80-seat majority.
During his visit to Tony Blair’s former seat, the Prime Minister revealed plans to spend £100bn on infrastructure in a bid to shore up the Tories’ gains in traditional labour heartlands.
And as the country welcomed in the new decade, chancellor Sajid Javid used a visit to the Trafford Park tram line project in Manchester to indicate that his budget on the 11th of March will include plans to invest heavily in the North and the Midlands.
Investment will be vital if we are to bridge the divide between the UK’s regions. Data released by the Office for National Statistics in December 2019 revealed that London recorded a 1.1 per cent annual rise in output per person to £54,700 in 2018. This continued an increase in the per capita gap compared to the worst-performing region, the North East, where growth was only 0.4 per cent putting output per person at £23,600 per head.
The idea currently under consideration to tackle the north-south divide is to change the formula the Treasury uses to evaluate big investment projects. Currently, the formula used is biased towards areas where economic growth, high productivity, and high house prices are found, such as London, and in the commuter belts of leafy south England.
One project that could be vital in boosting growth in the Midlands and the North is HS2.
HS2 has received a lot of criticism in recent years, much of which has been renewed since the election. The common misconception associated with HS2 is that the speed of the new service is the main point.
In reality, the main objective is capacity, and not just capacity for fast intercity services, but for those local regional and commuter services between small towns that have been so neglected.
Britain’s Victorian railways were built for a different kind of travel. Today, the same lines carry a mix of express intercity trains – the kind which HS2 will take – and local and commuter services – the kind people use to get to work or to visit a neighbouring town.
To get around the fact that trains cannot overtake each other, local stopping trains need a large gap behind them in the timetable so that express trains do not catch up, which in turn reduces capacity. The engineering behind HS2 is to take those express services off the older mainlines, leaving them exclusively to local and commuter services, freeing up capacity across a huge swathe of the country for local services.
However, it’s no secret that costs are spiralling out of control, with the latest estimates from Lord Berkeley pricing the project at £108bn. To get around this, the government could look at redirecting investment to focus on parts of the line north of Birmingham where capacity is needed the most.
New and transformative east-west lines linking Northern cities directly would create an alternative UK growth centre beyond the South East. Its connectivity – improving the variety, regularity and reliability of local rail services – would promote regional prosperity in post-Brexit Britain.
This would open up access to a huge pool of talent for local businesses and provide workers in the North with employment opportunities that they never had previously.
Narrowing regional disparities will be crucial to the UK’s ability to compete on the world stage post-Brexit and the journey to do so must begin with infrastructure investment. Because all in all, a well-connected, joined-up Britain will be far more influential on the global stage post-Brexit than one of two halves.