Saturday, March 20, 2010

Region's ambitions derailed once more

Among the stories to catch my eye this week was one warning that the £16bn Crossrail scheme to link East and West London may have hit a potentially deadly snag.

An area of the capital destined for tunnelling as part of the scheme may, it turns out, be the site of a missing 16th century burial ground for victims of anthrax.

Since long-dormant anthrax spores can spread through the air and cause fresh infection if disturbed, this doubtless poses something of a dilemma for the engineers working on the project.

Nevertheless, transport secretary Lord Adonis said a compulsory purchase of the affected area, beneath a car park near the old city walls, was still expected to go ahead.

Given recent developments – or rather lack of them – in the North-East transport arena, this episode may well have brought some wry smiles in this part of the world.

While nothing must be allowed to get in the way of Crossrail - be it hell, high water or anthrax - it’s a different story when it comes to the region’s hopes of inclusion in the planned high speed rail network.

Work on the new 250mph line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is due to begin in 2017 – the year Crossrail is due to be completed.

But it won’t be coming to the North-East any time soon, if at all. Under the current plans, the 21st century will be into its fourth decade before there is the remotest chance of that.

You had to feel for poor old North-East minister Nick Brown, who has lobbied hard for the region to be included in the network, reduced last weekend to a lame pledge to do something about the East Coast Main Line.

The same Lord Adonis has refused to give any commitment to extending the high speed link to Newcastle, saying it was important to concentrate on a “deliverable” project.

This is despite a consultants’ study which found that extending it would create 95,000 jobs by 2040, and the government’s own HS2 team advising that including the North-East in the network made the “best business case.”

Neither should we supposed things would be any better with the Tories, who want a cheaper link from London to Leeds that would leave out the East Midlands as well as this region.

For those of us who have followed the debate about regional spending over a number of years, it’s a depressingly familiar picture.

It has long been clear that the North-East’s relative lack of good transport links are the biggest single obstacle to its competitiveness, and the biggest single reason for the endurance of the North-South divide.

Sadly, the die was cast on this years ago when the government declared, around the same time as it gave the original go-ahead to Crossrail, that there was no relationship between regional spending and regional economic prosperity.

It was, of course, a lie, but it was a lie that enabled ministers to claim that spending £16bn improving London’s transport system would have absolutely no adverse impact on poorer regions.

That, of course, is a nonsense. Between them, Crossrail and the new high speed link will dramatically widen the prosperity gap between those regions that already have good transport connections and those that have never had them.

Of all the many reactions to the high speed decision, perhaps the quaintest came from the chief executive of One North East, Alan Clarke.

“The phasing of the development of a high speed network is important and must not lead to areas of economic disadvantage,” he said.

“Lead to?” Wake up and smell the coffee Alan. Economic disadvantage has been here for decades – and it’s about to get worse.

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Maria said...

Didn't the North East vote over 70% against becoming a region in the referendum? You're most democratic in recognising that fact, Mr Linford!

Paul Linford said...

Maria, the North-East voted against having an elected regional assembly. It did not vote against becoming a region,for the simple reason that it is one.

tally said...

perhaps if 10% consequentials of the barnett formula 16bn cross rail cost, did not have to go to wales scotland and NI to spend on whatever they like,the North East could have been included.