OPINION - Andy Burnham: England will be jealous of Crossrail, so give us our own version in the North

·4-min read
 (Amanda Searle)
(Amanda Searle)

On opening day, London is excited — and the rest of England is getting envious. There is no doubt that the Elizabeth line will be brilliant for passengers across the South-east and provide an enduring tribute to our longest-serving monarch.

It will also cement London’s status as a leading global city — something which benefits us all in the end. And yet, there’s no point denying that Tuesday will bring mixed feelings.

Overnight, England’s transport divide will have grown wider and “levelling up” will have become even harder to achieve. I raise this not to rain on London’s parade but just to be honest about how the news will be seen in our part of the world. Also, if I were to complain, it would be more than a little hypocritical.

It might surprise you to know that, 15 years ago, I pulled together the funding package for what was then called Crossrail.

Okay, I’ll admit, I was instructed to do it by my then boss Alistair Darling as part of the 2007 spending review. But I did it willingly as I am proud of our capital and want it to have world-class infrastructure. My only caveat is that I don’t believe London should be the only place to have it.

So that’s how I went about my task. I set Treasury civil servants two challenges: first, to make sure London made a big contribution; second, to give me rail projects in other English cities to announce at the same time.

What happened next was very revealing — and explains why England is so unequal. On the first challenge, there is no doubt whatsoever that London stepped up. It was asked to contribute two thirds of the original £15 billion cost and, fair play, you did. In the days ahead, when complaints are inevitably made, it is only right that the hefty contribution from London businesses is recognised.

It was on the second challenge where I had less success. As the spending review approached, I kept asking officials for details on the regional projects. Cue nervous shuffling of paper. Finally, on the eve of the big day, I got my answer: a blank sheet of paper save for a feasibility study into the possible rebuilding of Birmingham New Street.

I was furious. How could we justify spending billions on London, I asked, and nothing elsewhere? No regional projects had passed the “Green Book” test, I was told.

This was when the scales fell from my eyes. I finally understood why we have such a big North-South divide. It’s no accident; it’s government policy.

The “Green Book” scores infrastructure projects on how much they will return to UK PLC over a 25-year period. In other words, rail lines in parts of the country where the economy is already strongest will stand most chance of passing the test. It is a formula for overheating the South-east and ever greater levels of regional inequality.

In the end, that approach doesn’t work for anyone. It leaves ordinary Londoners priced out of the property market. That’s why, if London gets new infrastructure, it’s better for everyone if Manchester and Leeds get it too.

If you go back in time, there was no “Green Book” test when the London Underground was being built. London got that investment because it needed it. But, because of it, the capital now has a bigger economy which means it can contribute to the cost of new infrastructure, like Crossrail. We are just asking for the same initial investment so the North can go on the same journey and build its economy in the same way.

And, as luck would have it, London will soon have the perfect opportunity to help us.

Within weeks, MPs will get to debate the bill to take HS2 to Manchester. By proposing a surface turnback station at Piccadilly, it effectively rules out a proper “Crossrail of the North” via Bradford and Leeds. Instead of the full east-west line we were promised, the dreaded “Green Book” has given us half a new line to Huddersfield.

Can you imagine how powerful a statement it would be if MPs across London and the South rejected this and backed the North instead?

It would be a moment when our elected representatives finally took back control from the civil service and brought North and South together like never before.

So here’s what we should do. We’ll cheer the opening of the Elizabeth line if you ask your MP to get behind Crossrail of the North. Is that a deal?

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting