Joe Anderson: “The North-South divide is as alive as it’s ever been. Trust me”

The Mayor of Liverpool explains why he quit the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

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A bullish Joe Anderson says he would “rather have Mary Berry than Jake Berry” running the Northern Powerhouse agenda. The Mayor of Liverpool quit the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) – an independent body of politicians and business leaders – earlier this week, over funding concerns and the lack of progress on rolling out high-speed rail more widely in the north of England. And he thinks that the TV cook would do a better job than the current Northern Powerhouse minister, although he insists “the bar has not been set very high”. Anderson scoffs: “This government hears a lot of people without actually listening to them.”

Following Anderson’s resignation, Berry told him to “calm down” and in an attempt to mollify the Mayor pointed towards his recent announcement of £34m of investment for Liverpool. Anderson says this proves his point. “Since Jake Berry joined the NPP, the lights have gone dimmer. His silly, ill-advised comments about £34m of funding means nothing when the city is having to borrow money to complete £40m of road repairs. That £34m is nothing compared to what’s actually needed.”

Anderson says he was “originally” a champion of the Northern Powerhouse designed by former chancellor George Osborne and the economist Jim O’Neill, to channel investment in transport, infrastructure and jobs to the north of England, but now feels “let down” by the agenda in practice. “The prime minister and the current chancellor’s contempt for Osborne,” Anderson suspects, “has allowed personal problems to get in the way of what’s right for the UK.”

The Mayor admits he’s “not a fan” of many other Osborne policies, “but the idea behind the Northern Powerhouse was to deliver extra capacity in the north of England, and that I could get on board with.” The agenda's original aim, he says, was to deliver more jobs and better transport connectivity. “Why wouldn’t you support that? There is an overwhelmingly powerful case to invest in the North, but a personal vendetta has got in the way of progress. I’d like to be wrong, but why else would the £7bn plan for a high-speed rail link between Liverpool and the HS2 route be scrapped?” 

Anderson accuses the Treasury of “betraying the North” with its decision not to include funding for a high-speed rail line in the October budget, despite NPP members reportedly being told that it would be. “The plan was to have 20 miles of new track joining Liverpool up to the HS2 line south of Manchester, but that never happened. It’s a disgrace, quite frankly. The North-South divide is as alive as it’s ever been, trust me.”

The lack of high-speed rail, Anderson says, is “holding Liverpool back”. He highlights Channel 4’s decision to set up a new national HQ in Leeds, which is on the HS2 line. “There you go,” he says with a deep breath. “Channel 4 actively said it chose Leeds because of the long-term connectivity offered by HS2, while Liverpool is stuck where it sits. Clearly, the Northern Powerhouse doesn’t include all of the North.”

Anderson draws a further contrast between the situation in Liverpool and the “consistently over-budget and over-deadline mess” that is Crossrail, the 118-kilometre overground and underground hybrid railway connecting London with parts of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex that was originally planned to open this month. But, following problems with signalling systems, train testing and staff, it is now not expected to launch until 2020 at the earliest.

The project could eventually cost £3bn more than initially budgeted and has received additional funding from central government and Transport for London. “I’m not anti-London by any means,” Anderson insists. “I’m not one to say that the capital needs to be starved of investment. But if you have clear restrictions in finance, as we do under austerity, then it’s only right to make funding opportunities equal across the board. It is in the interest of the wider UK to have a strong economy in the North. To allow London projects to continue borrowing at this rate ahead of northern rail, for me, is unacceptable and unforgivable.” 

Is Brexit a distraction from the Northern Powerhouse? Anderson nods. “It’s a distraction from everything, to be honest. It’s a distraction from the failure of welfare policy in this country; it’s a distraction from this government’s aim to roll out universal credit sooner than it would get people into secure and meaningful work.” Anderson, who campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union, says that the government is “paralysed” so long as uncertainty around Brexit persists. He adds: “The fact is that the government is so disjointed and there is no real clear vision post-Brexit about what a deal with the EU would actually look like; no one can agree. No deal or a bad deal is not a good choice for anyone to make.” So long as Brexit drama continues, Anderson says, “the North will be left in the dark”, which is why he “definitely” backs a second referendum on EU membership – the so-called People’s Vote.

Anderson hopes that his resignation from the NPP will shake things up. “After four years of being ignored I think it was time for someone to demonstrate exactly how disillusioned people in the North feel. The NPP has overseen umpteen reports, we’ve had lots of things put forward by Transport for the North, for example, and yet still nothing gets done.” He is urging other NPP members to follow his lead and to show the government that it "can’t afford to ignore" the North’s concerns. “There is a clear invest-to-earn incentive by improving the North’s infrastructure… the government must learn that you can’t just cut yourself out of austerity.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman