George Hepburn: Why it's time the North East and the the North went their separate ways

George Hepburn column: Why it's time the North East and the rest of the North went their separate ways

Traffic on Ovingham Bridge
Traffic on Ovingham Bridge

The Ovingham bridge closes today for a £2m refurbishment. The single carriageway iron bridge was the centrepiece of an infrastructure package for the North East announced by George Osborne this time last year.

The bridge, which carries 5,000 cars a day, will be closed for up to year. It only took six months to build in 1883.

At the grand reopening, we will still have a single carriageway bridge hemmed in by the stone pillars at either end and a level crossing on the approach road which stops the traffic for up to 15 minutes an hour.

If the proposed new housing schemes in the surrounding area go ahead – and I actually think there is no harm in them doing so – there will be even greater congestion as traffic queues to cross the new Ovingham bridge.

I will miss the company of Gordon Halliday each morning at Prudhoe Waterworld. He lives on the wrong side of the river and his journey from Ovingham will now involve a lengthy detour.

Such fracturing of friendships and community relationships is the unintended consequence of modernisation.

There was good reason to build a castle at Prudhoe. After a few centuries of increasingly friendly relations, the north side divide between the contrasting communities of Prudhoe and Ovingham will be in danger of widening again.

As I said at the time, we may look back on the great works at the Ovingham bridge as the first green shoots of recovery. The Chancellor was just taking his foot off the brake last year and this modest scheme was the result.

Who knows what he might have dreamed up a year later now that he is in expansionist mode - perhaps the new bridge further downstream that is so badly needed.

In Manchester last week, the Chancellor proposed that the cities of the North should come together as a northern powerhouse to challenge the might of London. He mooted the idea of a high speed rail link (HS3) from east to west across the country but did not come up with the money to do so.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne
 

Sadly, it was not the Tyne Valley line that the Chancellor had in mind for upgrading. Commuters at Prudhoe station were dancing on the platform at the hint in George’s speech that the successful bidder for the Northern Rail franchise will need to replace the bone rattling pacer trains that creak just like the Ovingham bridge and are nearly as old.

They knew in their hearts that the £5 per head spent on traffic improvements in this region fell short of what would be needed to build HS3. Commuters in the North West could club together with their £134 per head and those in Yorkshire and Humber have a more healthy £210.

According to ippr North, these paltry sums pale into insignificance with the £2,700 per head spent on transport infrastructure in London.

I love travelling on those ultra modern trains that glide frequently and speedily into London and rage at the contrast with the antiquated pacer trains. But I smile as the London bound trains become packed with commuters spending excessive amounts of time and money on their daily journey to work. I reckon I might be better off back in the Tyne Valley after all.

Keep a gazeteer handy if you read the Chancellors ‘northern powerhouse’ speech in full. Y

ou will not recognise many of the place names. He credits the investment in Nissan, Hitachi and Rolls Royce, gives an honourable mention to the research capacity of, among others, Durham and Newcastle universities and singles out for praise the National Biologics Industrial Innovation Centre in Teesside. But that’s about it.

Here is his reference to culture: “Here we already have world-class arts and culture, from Opera North in Leeds to the Tate in Liverpool, to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and the new Hepworth over in Wakefield. And then there’s the music of
the Halle and the Liverpool
Philharmonic and of course the best pop music on the planet.”

Anything missing? The Chancellor cannot have read the Journal’s 100 reasons why its great up north.

It became increasingly apparent from the ill fated ‘Northern Way’ initiative of the last government, that any argument for economic and political integration only really applies to the M62 corridor linking Manchester and Leeds. Newcastle Gateshead is out on a limb. When the Chancellor talked of the North last week, he didn’t mean Prudhoe.

Of course, if Jeremy Middleton asks the right questions, as he did in the Chancellor’s den last week, George Osborne will come up with the right answers. But they are vague and familiar promises for after the election without any reference to the proposed powerhouse.

Others better qualified might debate the main hypothesis in the Chancellor’s speech that only world class cities with critical mass really matter when it comes to economic growth. The brightest and best want to crowd together in places like, er, London. Everywhere else should emulate its success. I suspect there could be other ways to thrive.

I think it is time we parted company with the North. We are not in that club and could do better on our own. Look at Yorkshire. Le tour est un coup spectacular. The Yorkshire brand has legs and wheels.

Now that the government has broken up the English regional structures , we have the opportunity to follow Yorkshire’s example. We need a new name like the English Borders, Reiver Country, Nether Scotland - goodness knows what. It will confuse the weather forecast but the ‘North East’ has had its day.

The Chancellor suggests we need a new leader too. I still think politics should be left to the politicians. But if we are looking for a figurehead, and if column inches in the Journal is anything to go by, Alan Shearer, Jane Northumberland, Mark Knofler and Cheryl Cole must be front runners.

Come to think of it, my mate Gordon will have time on his hands as he can’t get to the swimming pool.

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