Opening up the North: a misguided Whitehall concept

Posted on 23 Sep 2013 by The Manufacturer

David Cliff, MD, Gedanken and vice chairman of the Institute of Directors’ County Durham and Sunderland Committee on HS2 and the persistence of outdated dedication to a London-centric economy which undervalues regional manufacturing contributions to GDP.

David Cliff, MD, Gedanken

I should have been like an excitable small boy, but instead my train of thought led me to missed economic opportunity as I watched a restored steam train running down the line to Swanage, sidings chock full of memorabilia and restoration projects. It was like travelling back in time, embroidered antimacassars adorning the seats and adding to a sense of Victoriana.

The age of steam always provokes a fascination for yesteryear and even as we ponder the merits of HS2 and discuss with bight-eyed enthusiasm the futuristic transport technologies which will enable us to meet the challenges of sustainability, we complain endlessly about poor investment in our Victorian infrastructure.

Whitehall Mandarins strategizing over HS2 prose on about the way in which the rail link will “open up the North”.

But do they actually know where ‘The North’ is or what happens there? I know many in the North East, where I have lived and worked for most of my life, seriously doubt it.

HS2 involves a concentrated investment of funds, opening up some parts of the country, simultaneously casting others into a hinterland of lesser developed infrastructures and concomitant reduced economic opportunity.

It concerns me to see that the North East, an area that can attract Hitachi to build trains does, has not attracted plans for significantly improved infrastructure. It pains me to see the need for an effective motorway infrastructure spanning the region and single lane carriageways being duelled, particularly in accident spots.

HS2 will create winners and losers as any concentrated investment does, working on the fallacious idea that we need to connect to the capital at all costs when, in a modern, technologically-based society, this notion of epicentres of geographical power are perhaps becoming redundant.

The reality is that the while not being particularly well served by HS2, the North East is performing stunningly well in the area of manufacturing. Indeed, if replicated elsewhere, it would render the country “the workshop of the world” yet again. Despite this, our political masters seem averse to dealing with the North East on a fair, equitable basis.

Once again we dwell in the political zone where we don’t have real debates or true consensus politics. We simply have the old “ask and tell” approach of vested interests and pet themes. While those advocating competing economic models thrash out the pros and cons of a particular initiative, morality, equity and fairness are relegated to the shadows.

It occurs to me that pre-1963 and the Beeching Reports commissioned under the conservative administration of the day, the infrastructure was fairly distributed around the country and government disinvestment ended the age of steam as we knew it. What might it have been with sustained investment and technology?

Quite what railway age we enter with government investment in HS2 is a moot point. What appears clear is the North East still needs more infrastructure support and the region’s contribution to manufacturing and GDP, not the ballot box, better valued than it currently is.