The government’s decision to scrap the eastern leg of HS2 certainly came as a shock to many, but in hindsight I believe we should have expected it all along. However, that doesn’t mean the impact of their decision hasn’t been widely felt.
What’s frustrating is that once again, northern regions are being left behind with businesses, employees and the general public feeling as though their being left to fight for themselves. What happened to the promises of ‘levelling up’? Is it time we face the fact they were just empty promises formulated as part of a PR stunt to obtain more votes? Yes. It’s time to take back the north; our north.
Forget the fascination with London
The first place we can start is to get rid of this obsession to get to London as fast as possible. It’s completely sending the wrong message to our younger generation that to excel, you must head south. And, let’s face it, 12 minutes being shaved off a trip to London is completely redundant when it is still taking hours to travel 20 or 30 miles by train to major northern cities. Why is it that we are primarily concerned with doing our best to push people toward getting out of the north instead of improving inter city connections? Why not make it easier for them to visit other northern cities without the morning hassle we’re oh so familiar with in the north.
The fact of the matter is, without proper investment in northern transport, the lack of investment for SMEs in some northern regions will remain. Reports have shown that SMEs have had poor access to funding due to being deemed unable to provide business outside of their local area. This is not the fault of the SMEs who are driving successful businesses and have the potential to support local communities through opportunities for work and growth – this is the fault of our transportation system that does not have the right infrastructure in place to support our local communities in prospering.
Travelling from east to west up north for example is a dire state of affairs – and the truest reflection of the issues with our public transport. Liverpool and Leeds are 75 miles apart, and the time taken to travel by train between the two major cities takes almost two hours (1 hour 50). It takes only an extra 25 minutes to travel from Leeds to London, a journey twice as far, at almost 200 miles. How has this not been rectified yet? There is no wonder connectivity and collaboration between businesses is harder up north; we don’t have the luxury of time.
The roads aren’t much better either. The M62 is one of, if not the most dangerous, motorways in England. With hazardous winds and weather conditions in winter – and the high levels of congestion – the main road to travel east to west is often at a standstill. It’s known as a corridor for a reason, being the only major road connecting regions between Hull and Liverpool.
Similar issues arise for shorter commuter journeys too. Down south, the 24-mile commute from Oxford to Reading takes 23 minutes. A mile a minute, a reasonable commute time for many. The slightly shorter journey of 22 miles between Sheffield and Huddersfield up north takes 1 hour 16 minutes. Over 3 times longer per mile. Have I made my point yet?
Of course, these issues aren’t just about speed and time as separate elements, the issue is the effect of quicker travel times on our economy. We know this, and so does the government. If connectivity didn’t improve the economy, why would the government forecast to spend over £100b on HS2?
Connectivity means productivity
So what’s the solution? Connecting northern regions, properly. That’s the key to ensuring prosperity up north. We cannot be surprised that our northern talent is migrating south if we’re putting all our eggs in the ‘fixing the north/south divide’ basket.
Creating reasonable travel times between our northern regions is a huge way we can retain talent up north. Allowing ease of access between localities allows for those working under hybrid models to get to work when they need to much more easily, as well as allowing those needing to travel between cities for meetings and collaborations much more efficiently.
Students for example are likely to head to London after graduation to revel in opportunities. Connecting northern regions can open up endless opportunities because accessibility would no longer be a barrier. This is beneficial not only for those seeking work opportunities but for business owners who would be able to cast a wider net, busting open the talent pool, attracting even more star talents to their place of work. The knock-on effect of that for businesses is huge – enabling quicker growth, and as such more success. In return, the northern economy gets a boost and no longer feels like an outsider. Perhaps then, the government may sit up and take notice of our once forgotten regions.
Yes, the north-south divide is stark, there’s no denying it, and we have some of the most innovative
SMEs in the north that aren’t being allowed to excel purely because of their geographic location. But, it’s time to end the fascination with connecting northern regions to London and instead do what we can to connect northern cities to one another, allowing collaboration among northern people and businesses to catapult the north into the thriving economic status we are more than ready to fight for.
Author: Michael Edwards, the founder of The Northern Affinity, a collaboration of dynamic Northern Businesses powering growth and development. Founded in 2019, The Northern Affinity aims to bring together like-minded people and provide a platform to connect, collaborate and share expertise.