The economy of the north has been transformed by its transport before. The man-made landscape, from its Victorian industrial centres to the bridges and canals of its countryside, appeared with the Industrial Revolution. John Cridland sees a parallel with the modern north.
“What is remarkable about that period,” Cridland says, “in which the north played a leading role, was the way in which entrepreneurs seized the opportunities of canal growth, and then rail investment, to do things that only a generation earlier would not have been possible.”
For Cridland, connectivity is what makes economic areas succeed.
“I like to use the example of the Randstad in the Netherlands,” he says, referring to that country’s “ring city” region, made up by Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. “In the Randstad you’ve got a similar population to the cities in the north of England, but greater economic value, and connectivity is part of that. If you’ve got somebody growing up in somewhere like Salford, the Metro has given them a chance to travel quickly and effectively on a regular basis between Salford Quays and Manchester Piccadilly.
“What TfN [Transport for the North] is now trying to do is to make it possible for someone from Salford not only to have a high-quality job in Salford or Manchester, but to have a high-quality job in Leeds or Sheffield or Liverpool. And whether it’s rail links or road links, it’s regular, predictable and high-quality travel options that give people chances.”
While those in Dutch and German cities can realistically look for work in a city within the same megalopolis, Cridland points out that people in northern England are hampered by the journey time between cities. “These are distances which, in other parts of Europe, would be perfectly commutable. The distance between Sheffield and Manchester is not massive, but the evidence shows it has the slowest journey time per mile of any two cities in the country.”
Part of the problem is the way in which transport routes in the UK have evolved: all roads lead to London. Cridland says there are major new investments across the north, from Sheffield and Manchester city centres to the ports of Liverpool, Teesport and the Humber, which could, if connected, offer a “multiplier effect”, allowing businesses to share resources and expertise. “East-west links could liberate travel patterns for citizens to get to higher-quality jobs and for entrepreneurs to seize economic opportunities, because they’re filling a real gap. It’s the east-west links in the north of England that are poor.”
The solution, he says, is to dig deep. The proposed trans-Pennine road tunnel is still only a feasibility study, but it’s thought that it would reduce the drive between Sheffield and Manchester by half an hour, saving more than 11,000 hours of driving per day. It would be a mega-project on a par with Crossrail, involving up to 18 miles of subterranean driving; up to 15 million cubic metres of rock would need to be excavated, enough to fill 6,000 Olympic swimming pools.
“As a grand project,” Cridland agrees, “it is of that scale. It’s a Crossrail of the north. And if you look at what Crossrail is doing to transform London, I think that’s the opportunity.”
He adds: “In talking to elected leaders and business representatives in the north, one hears regular and powerful anecdotal stories about the challenge of journey times, and the quality of provision. We’ve got the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield, so, whichever route you go, you are likely to face congestion from winding routes, and you’re also likely to face weather challenges. Congestion in the villages at the end of the M67, heading for the Woodhead Pass, is an illustration of the challenge it provides for travellers but also the challenge for people trying to live in those neighbourhoods, where the transport capacity simply isn’t good enough.
“So, you’ve got the challenge of all-weather routes across the Pennines, whether it’s Sheffield-Manchester on the A628 or the A6, or whether it’s Leeds to Manchester on the M62, which is the only motorway-equivalent route if you’re in Sheffield and you decide to go north and across. These are high-altitude roads, they’re susceptible to winter weather. Because the trunk routes are not of motorway standard, particularly on the Sheffield-Manchester routes, you have pinch points at both ends. In villages like Mottram, people come off the motorway and go down to an ordinary, two-way trunk road that winds its way up across the Pennines, so you get a lot of stacking.”
As with Crossrail, the case for a tunnel is made by what lies between destinations; not houses, in this case, but the rugged beauty of the Peak District, which Cridland calls “a phenomenal national asset”.
“We are considering a very long and ambitious tunnel for precisely that reason – that it would be wholly inappropriate to consider a surface dual carriageway across a national park. But tunnels also have impacts. They still need venting, for air safety. If you think back to Victorian rail tunnels, they had those little castles in fields. As a child, I used to wonder why somebody had built a castle there, until I realised that they were air tunnels for the railway that the Victorians had built underneath the hill.
“Anything you do has an environmental impact. It’s up to stakeholders to judge whether they think the feasibility study is addressing that properly, and I’m sure there will be a variety of opinions.”
Many of the environmental concerns raised in TfN’s study are associated with the proposal that the tunnel should carry a road, rather than a railway. Overall, TfN foresees a significant increase in air pollution, noise and the carbon emissions associated with more traffic. Furthermore, if people from Sheffield are going to begin driving to work in Manchester, there will need to be a lot more parking spaces in Manchester. Without supporting infrastructure, says Cridland, a tunnel would merely move pinch points, rather than relieving them.
“It is a priority to make sure that there is good connectivity between the existing transport infrastructure at either end of a new route, and that new route. That is in part why, even in the interim report, options have been narrowed down, and certain routes – particularly the southern routes – have been ruled out. The options are narrowing down on the northern routes because the environmental impact would be much less, and because it links better with existing roads.
“A lot of the stakeholder comment has been about the consequential impact, at both ends, of the new route. We recognise that that’s an absolute priority to get right, because it would be liberating people to do travel patterns which they don’t currently do, and inevitably there will be a knock-on impact.
“TfN is a partnership of civic and business leadership on both sides of the Pennines, and the strategic routes will need to be followed through by individual local authorities taking responsibility for their own local travel solutions and making sure that there are local travel solutions at each end of a potential tunnel, so that it is an integrated package, not an isolated investment.”
There is no question that the overarching project behind Cridland’s plan – to connect the cities of the north into a single, highly commutable metropolitan area – will meet with a great deal of difficulty and opposition, from the need to battle the south of England for investment to the need to preserve the environment that makes the north an attractive place to live.
But earlier this year, TfN commissioned research that illustrates the yawning gap between London and the north, and the size of the opportunity that could be grasped: according to the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review, Londoners produce on average £22,000 more gross value added (GVA, a measure of economic activity) per person than people in the north. The challenge for everyone working in the north is to see if this gap can be bridged – or perhaps, as John Cridland suggests, if it can be tunnelled.