In last week’s column I posed the question whether a Parliament of the North extending across the North East, North West and Yorkshire may turn out to be the answer to the vexed question of how power should be devolved within England.
If a North East Assembly would lack the critical mass to bring about real change, and a purely English Parliament would bring power no nearer the region than at present, a Northern Parliament covering a quarter of the UK population would seem to be a logical half-way house.
Either way, much of the current appetite for greater devolution within the wider North is being driven by a single issue: the need for dramatic improvements in its transport infrastructure relative to the rest of the UK, allied to a belief that Westminster is incapable of delivering this.
And within the North-East itself, there is no more vivid illustration of the need for the region to take greater control of its transport affairs than the continuing saga over the dualling of the A1.
To be fair, turning the A1 into a dual carriageway all the way between Newcastle and the Scottish border is not and never will be the panacea to all of the region’s economic problems.
But over the course of three decades, the project has become an emblem not just of Whitehall’s broken promises but also a metaphor for the UK’s skewed system of transport infrastructure spending, its estimated £70m cost a mere drop in the ocean beside the billions being spent on big-ticket schemes like Crossrail, Thameslink and HS2.
In an interview with my predecessor as political editor of this newspaper in 1995, Tony Blair promised that the A1 dualling would be “a priority” for an incoming Labour government.
Needless to say, it was anything but, and after the issue was kicked into the longest of long grasses following a 2006 review, it took the election of a Tory-led administration in 2010 to even get it back onto the political agenda.
Mary Creagh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, was scathing about the Tories’ motives in resurrecting the project as well as being disarmingly honest about her own party’s commitment to the scheme.
She told The Journal’s current political editor this week: “They suddenly realised ‘oh we need shovel-ready popular infrastructure projects, oh let’s have some roads’.”
Asked about Labour’s own road building plans, she appeared to cast serious doubt over whether the A1 project even figured on its wish-list, pointing out that it had been looked at in 2006 and rejected.
“I think it’s interesting that eight years after they were looked at and scrapped, they are resurrecting some of them again now. And I’m genuinely not sure how far they are going to get,” she added.
Against that, the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, recently singled out the project for mention in his speech to the Lib Dem conference, insisting that his party deserved the credit for “pushing for upgrades to the A1.”
His description of the scheme as a “not a Conservative idea, but a Liberal Democrat idea” was due recognition of the role played by the outgoing Berwick MP Alan Beith in keeping it on the agenda for all these years.
It was also seen by some as a strong hint that the project will be included in next month’s Autumn Statement in which Mr Alexander’s boss, George Osborne, will set out the government’s spending plans up to the election and beyond.
The Chancellor, who seems to ‘get’ the importance of regional transport infrastructure in a way that has eluded his recent predecessors, is widely believed to be planning to announce a series of road-building schemes in the 3 December statement. Well, we’ll know soon enough. But even if the A1 does make it onto the list, it would not of course remove the need for future major transport planning decisions to be made closer to home.
Whether we end up with combined authorities, regional assemblies or even a Northern Parliament, giving areas a pot of money to spend as they choose on transport improvements would make far more sense than the current Whitehall begging bowl approach. One of the biggest reasons why the public rejected the regional assembly proposed in 2004 was the fact that its lack of transport powers would have rendered it incapable of tackling the region’s economic deficit.
Whatever form of devolution is put forward next time round, it must not suffer the same fate.