The north of England is poised to be a defining political battleground in the months ahead. Within days of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, both he and Jeremy Corbyn raced to the region. Just last weekend Corbyn visited once again, while Conservative ministers are also touring the area. Meanwhile, the upcoming Convention of the North — a gathering of political and business leaders — promises to be a crucial moment in the political calendar.
Some major spending commitments have been made too. Both major parties have pledged tens of billions of pounds for northern transport infrastructure. Both have committed to the £39bn Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme — a new high-speed network primarily connecting the north’s major cities — while Labour has promised a £250bn National Transformation Fund accompanied by a devolved Treasury unit based in the north.
This level of investment is long overdue; IPPR North’s new analysis shows why. We highlight the long-standing disparity between transport spending on London and on the north. We show that transport spending in the capital has been on average 2.4 times higher per person than in the north; and that spending per person has increased by 2.5 times more in London than in the north. If the north had received as much transport spending as London has over the last decade, there would have been an extra £66bn spent in the region.
We also analyse what the government plans to spend in the future. This shows that, unless they uphold their promises, London will receive almost three times more per person in transport investment than the north, and seven times more than the north east or Yorkshire and the Humber.
It is important to compare investment in the regions with London, but this should not be misunderstood as an argument to deprive the capital of funding. Rather, the answer is to “level up” investment in the north — and indeed all regions — to the capital’s current rate of investment, at the very least. And as we have highlighted, London combines its high productivity levels with high levels of poverty — clearly not something the north should aspire to.
As a country, we don’t invest nearly enough in transport infrastructure. Indeed, only London has the capacity and organisation to bring forward new transport projects for central government investment. Until the recent formation of Transport for the North, other parts of the country have had nothing of the sort. And there are still parts of England that have little prospect of improving their infrastructure — the south west in particular.
The forthcoming Spending Review is the first test of Johnson’s commitment to the north. If — after five years of talking about the Northern Powerhouse — the government fails to put the full Northern Powerhouse Rail project into its pipeline, then people will rightly wonder if it’s merely electioneering.
But the sight of London-based politicians visiting the north to make big spending commitments can be seen as a symptom of a more fundamental problem. It highlights that, unlike any comparable country, central government has almost full control of regional transport investment — and indeed, economic policy more generally. And that’s why devolution is what the north — and regions across England — really need.
While the upcoming spending review will be the first test of this government’s commitment to the north, the ultimate test is much harder: will they actually devolve power to the north and its people? And, in turn, as we look toward a potential general election, what will be Labour’s answer to this important question?
Luke Raikes is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North