In the run-up to the next general election, there are votes to be won and politicians suddenly become more interested in places like the North East.
The North - and the North East in particular - has seemed to bear the brunt of the Coalition’s austerity policies, with public sector cuts, slashed benefits and capital projects concentrated a down south. The economic growth trumpeted by Chancellor George Osborne is mostly happening elsewhere.
Even when there is spending earmarked for the North, the North doesn’t seem to mean the North East. The proposed HS2 project linking up to the North means the likes of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.
But it is hoped, this could change as a result of the launch yesterday of a report called One North: a proposition for the Interconnected North.
The report brings together the North’s five major cities: Leeds and Sheffield in Yorkshire, Manchester and Liverpool in the North West, but also - and significantly for this region - Newcastle.
The five cities are calling for a £15bn plan to improve road and rail connections in the region over the next 15 years. It includes plans for a new 125mph inter-city rail link, faster links and better access to ports and airports.
For the North East it would mean improvements to rail links between Newcastle and York in advance of HS2 being built – creating the capacity for 140mph trains which would speed up journey times and connections to the wider rail network.
There would also be improvements to commuter train routes between Tees Valley, Wearside and Tyneside. All this could be delivered well before 2026 when HS2 is currently planned.
A case for HS2 to be extended further northwards to improve connections from Newcastle to Edinburgh is also proposed and there was even talk of a possible Cross city link from Newcastle to Northumberland. The people and businesses of south east Northumberland, one of the most deprived areas of the region, have long called for better transport links to help breathe life into that area.
Dennis Fancett, chairman of the South East Northumberland Rail Users Group, said: “I’m not aware of the proposal but hope it will mean a commitment to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line.
“It’s already a working freight line and we actually ran a train on it in 2008 to show it could be done. It would be fairly simple to do.
“South East Northumberland is an area of high unemployment and this line would help provide access to jobs.”
To achieve it, an eight stage Network Rail process called ‘Grip’ - Governance for Railway Investment Projects - has to be gone through.
“We’ve gone through Grip 1 and we’re awaiting Northumberland County Council to authorise Grip 2 and 3. It’s early days but if everyone does everything as fast they can it could be up and running in three or four years,” said Mr Fawcett.
Meanwhile business leaders have warmly welcomed the One North announcement.
CBI North East director Dianne Sharp said: “We see it as a positive step. From a North East point of view, the Trans Pennine improvement will be great, anything that brings more economy to the North will have a knock on effect. Big investment projects bring about big opportunities for business. It’s a platform to build on so let’s get started.”
Bill MacLeod, accountancy giant PwC’s senior partner in Newcastle, commented: “If the North is to stand a chance of taking on the world, as the Chancellor has suggested, then its cities need to be linked more closely. It currently takes three-and-a-quarter hours by train to travel about 130 miles between our two freight ports, Liverpool and Hull, which is clearly not good enough.
“The North has long been calling for better connectivity between cities outside London. Collaboration across the cities is already very strong, and the focus on East to West connectivity is long overdue.
“The One North report shows that tackling the region’s transport system will enable the region to fulfil its economic potential.
“But it is essential the North develops its own economic model, rather than just copying London. The UK regions all have an important role to play in driving growth for the whole of the UK, and getting the right investment in our transport systems would better connect people and jobs, which is crucial if we want to rebalance the national economy.”
The idea followed a speech in June by the Chancellor in which he said the cities in the North of England were individually strong but were “collectively not strong enough”.
He said better road and rail links would allow cities across northern England to “take on the world”, as London had done.
Newcastle is part of the report, and there is confidence it won’t lose out on the potential benefits.
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes said: “The One North plan would complement the proposals already in place for HS2 and has been developed in response to a challenge set out by HS2 Chairman Sir David Higgins in his report HS2 Plus.
“Newcastle has been a key player in the northern alliance and we have been making sure that the benefits of proposals for improved transport links extend to the North East, and are not confined to the Trans Pennine corridor between Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.
“Taken together, the transport improvements we propose could make a massive difference to the economic competitiveness of the North - linking us much more effectively to global markets, helping to speed up the movement of goods and connecting people to jobs much more effectively.”
However some are not convinced. The report was met with a cautious welcome by the opposition Lib Dems in Newcastle City Council saying it “makes a useful contribution to the debate on economic competitiveness and infrastructure”.
However there are concerns. Coun Greg Stone wondered whether it is for the benefit for the region as a whole and not just Newcastle.
He commented: “I believe it raises some important questions about joined up thinking in the North East. The leader of Newcastle city council, Coun Forbes, is a co-signatory of the report. He is also the lead member for transport on the new North East Combined Authority.
“Strangely, the One North report makes no mention of consultation with the North East Combined Authority, and there is no reference to it in recent NECA agenda papers, despite there having been discussion of the future needs of the North East’s rail network.
“This leads me to question whether the One North report has been produced with the best interests of the North East as a whole in mind, or whether it has been commissioned primarily to advance the interests of its five Core City sponsors.
“The goal of greater connectivity and improved transport infrastructure for the North is a good one, but if this goal is to be realised, it is important that the needs of the whole North East are addressed. To achieve this, it would be preferable if the region’s political leadership, in the form of the NECA, could pull in the same direction. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether this is the case.
“In order to remove any doubt that may exist, I feel it would be useful for Coun Forbes to confirm whether NECA’s views were taken into account in preparing this report, and whether his fellow NECA leaders are fully supportive of its proposals.”
Mr Osborne has pledged his support for it, describing the £15bn plans in the One North report as “affordable” as he welcomed the proposals.
He added: “Of course £15bn is a lot of money - it’s about the size of the Crossrail project in London. It’s a project over a number of years, out to 2030. We have got a £100 billion capital budget to the end of the decade. I think this kind of proposal is affordable.”
He added: “I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves and get it done, so let’s get on with it.” Anyone would think there was an election looming.