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Don't make infrastructure a 'North vs South' debate

The increasingly fractious debate around the North vs South need for transport infrastructure upgrades has ominous signs for the construction industry. 

Former chancellor George Osborne, now editor of London’s Evening Standard, still wants a Northern Powerhouse Rail upgrade (he continues to be chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership). 

And he sees no reason why the UK, which he today described as “poorer” due to the Brexit vote, can’t find money for both the Northern Powerhouse Rail/HS3 scheme and London’s Crossrail 2.

This is quite optimistic from a man who claimed throughout his time in Number 11 that he took the difficult decision not to cancel Crossrail and then struggled to make progress on Heathrow expansion, Hinkley Point C or HS2.

Today, Mr Osborne writes for the FT: “In 2014, I committed the then government to building this Northern Powerhouse”.

A somewhat loose definition of ‘commitment’ and ‘building’, I fear.

“Then I left office and there was a risk that the Northern Powerhouse would end with my own political career”, he adds.

Wasn’t it George Osborne himself who decided to leave office having been given the boot by the new PM/ made the most meteoric rise as a journalist since Clark Kent? Hmmm.

The mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham is right to throw his weight behind rail upgrades in the north, but it’s not the first time he’s played politics with massive infrastructure investment decisions.

Mr Burnham formerly threatened to vote down HS2 proposals as they weren’t right for his constituents when he was an MP for Leith, but now wants Northern Powerhouse Rail joined up with HS2

He of course has to campaign for the people he represents and the North does desperately need vital transport upgrades.

Mr Burnham also has previous for supporting major infrastructure regardless of its location.

As former chief secretary to the treasury, he was in a good position to influence the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, which rightly green-lit Crossrail. Imagine where the economy and construction industry would have been without it during the economic downturn?

But the government has now put a more restrictive budget process in place for Crossrail 2, demanding that the £31bn project be half-funded by London businesses during construction. Unlike Crossrail, its successor will not be able to benefit from a Business Rate Supplement used to pay-off borrowing, at least not until 2033.

This has made it tougher to fund, so recent comments about the government throwing £31bn at London infrastructure are political point scoring.

The focus for Northern businesses must be to support Transport for the North and ensure it gets statutory footing as it expects to by the end of the year.

At a time when someone as experienced and respected as Michèle Dix is pushing through the case for Crossrail 2, with strong lobbying for almost a decade from business groups including London First, Transport for the North is undergoing a search for a new chief executive.

David Brown’s decision to leave the organisation isn’t helpful. But the difference between the North’s cry for infrastructure and London’s seems to be about getting its house in order.

Few people will argue against northern infrastructure upgrades, not least the companies who had been promised work on ‘paused’ or scrapped schemes.

Politicians, northern businesses and Transport for the North must now focus on putting a watertight business case together for upgrades, ensuring government can’t find more ways to duck major transport decisions.

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