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Transport for the North: international connectivity is key to our success

The Independent International Connectivity Commission Report says that better transport infrastructure in the north is a national necessity. 

If UK plc is to maximise its competitiveness, then unlocking the potential of the north of England could be one of the key factors for success. This was the take away message from the Independent International Connectivity Commission report earlier this month when Chair John Cridland unveiled a series of recommendations designed to release the latent capability of the north’s airports and seaports by improving connectivity.

As Chair of the report and the wider Transport for the North movement, he said the UK public’s decision to leave the European Union has only increased the need to invest in better transport infrastructure in the north. The Brexit vote,” he explained, “means that now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to improve and expand our international connectivity in the north, and in doing so support maximising the potential of UK plc on the world stage.”

Under the wings of Concorde in a special facility at Manchester International Airport, fellow panel member and the venue’s chief executive, Tim Hawkins, pointed out that since the morning’s presentation had started “around 3,000 business trips were being started or completed above our heads right now.”

Air passengers using the north’s airports increased by 9.1 per cent over the last year, contributing some £5.5 billion to the north’s total GVA. If the UK is to become self-sustainable post-Brexit, the report says, it needs to nurture its northern assets. Cridland added: “Well there’s your proof of concept. The north has airport capacity for 60 million more passengers annually, yet only 4 per cent of air freight comes through the north.”

The alleged confines of the EU were one of the driving forces behind Brexit. It would be fitting, then, to explore new trading opportunities with partners further afield – the likes of Brazil, Chinaand India – but London’s centricity is actually a barrier to progress on this front. Mark Parsons, chief customer officer at DHL, and one of the Commission’s panel members who also contributed to the report, rued its findings that 50 per cent of long-haul passengers from the north have to take connecting flights internally. He said: “The north’s international connectivity is important for the UK as a whole. We’re talking about moving people, products and freight. If your transport of any of those things is going through multiple access points, then it becomes very inefficient and expensive. Whether it’s through aviation or through seaports, what we need to make sure is that foreign companies are able to trade as directly as possible with domestic companies, while cutting out the middle-man, in this case London. Whether as a tourist passenger or an international tradesperson, if you’re moving through multiple airports, then you run the risk of lost luggage, delays or myriad other problems.”

The solution to greater internationalism would appear simple: use the northern transport hubs more and the UK will welcome fresh economic growth where it needs it and open itself up to a plethora of pan-global partners. So if it is that simple, why was there any need for the report? “Strategy,” Cridland admitted, “has previously been disjointed. It’s up to us to change that ‘business as usual’ mentality and reap the benefits from doing so. This could mean an increase to national GVA by £97 billion and add 850,000 jobs.”

That all sounds great, but surely it can’t happen overnight? The report is realistic in its vision – international connectivity starts on the ground. “The challenge isn’t finding a great northern airport,” Cridland said, “because there are plenty. The challenge is in getting to one of the north’s great airports in the first place. We need more people within a 90-minute commute. The fact is that we don’t have the infrastructure available to link up Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and the other wonderful northern cities to each other. It means that each of these cities exists in their own little bubble, rather than what we want which is a more joined-up network of opportunities.”

London, by contrast, profits from a talent and trade pool that encompasses the Home Counties as well as a prioritisation from all other major cities elsewhere to be quickly connected to it. The same such fluidity, worryingly, does not extend to the north. But a tailored model along the same lines could be made to work there too. Another Commission member, Sarah Stewart, chief executive of the Newcastle Gateshead initiative, said that a failure to provide suitable infrastructure was denying the northerners the same opportunities afforded to their counterparts in the south. “There’s a two-way flow that’s been neglected. Our (the north’s) citizens need to have the same access to holidays, the same access to activities. Business and leisure actually need to be intertwined. On the flipside, when people visit the north, we need to make sure that they’ve got access to things beyond the airport. We have so much to offer in our architecture, or national parks, our cathedrals, our universities. The north must be open to visitors and open for business.”

The magnetism of the capital, meanwhile, pertains thanks to businesses basing themselves there and a commitment to tourism. While the north is already home to 16 million people and 7.2 million jobs, there is a clear latency, nay duty, to do more.

 John Cridland CBE, is Chair of the International Connectivity Commission Report.

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear