What’s our line on the Charles Line?

Few Liberal Democrats in England’s south-east will be aware of the depths of resentment in the north at the long-term imbalance between infrastructure around London and in and around the cities of northern England.  I’ve lived both in Yorkshire and London for the past 40 years, moving to work in London while staying engaged in politics in the north.  My own resentment has grown, as the last Labour government cancelled the metro tram schemes planned for Leeds and Liverpool and the trans-Pennine link remained as slow and unreliable as when I had first travelled on it in 1967, while the work on the Elizabeth Line was sustained and has now transformed transport connections across the Home Counties.

Boris Johnson’s expansive rhetoric on ‘Levelling Up’ briefly raised expectations that at last government would invest in revitalising the north.  Realization that ‘levelling up’ has in practice meant only small pots of money for tarting up high streets and restoring local buildings has deepened cynicism about London’s neglect of the former industrial north.  So the conference in Doncaster last Friday of the Conservative Parliamentary Party’s ‘Northern Research Group’ was worth noting.  Johnson’s easy promises helped the party to win all those ‘red wall’ seats.  If voters now feel betrayed, the Conservatives will lose them all again.

George Osborne, a powerful proponent a decade ago of the idea of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ recanted his commitment to austerity, which had led to cancellation of the eastern leg of the HS2 rail line and a determined Treasury resistance to a new line across the Pennines between Leeds and Manchester.  He noted that the Treasury had wanted to cancel the Elizabeth Line on several occasions, that it had taken over 30 years from proposal to completion, but that the outcome is proving transformative for the already-prosperous London region.  Conventional cost-benefit analysis has not taken into account the transformative effects of new rail links across the north.  Bits of electrified line, localised improvements of junctions, have left the journey from Liverpool to Leeds, Hull and Newcastle far slower and awkward than between Reading and East London.  

Osborne, however, did not directly address how to fund long-term public investment and carry the projects through – in terms of transport links, new hospitals and schools, and moving towards a sustainable economy.  Rachel Reeves dared to pledge £28 billion for industrial innovation and economic transition, only to hesitate before the anticipated onslaught of orthodox economists condemning any bending of existing fiscal rules.  So what’s our position on reversing Britain’s long-term decline in infrastructure through public investment, and where are the economists who will assist us in making that case?

In our over-centralised economy and polity there’s more active discussion about funding restoration of the rail link between Oxford and Cambridge, the ‘East-west’ line to bring together the innovation hubs at either end, than anything for the North.  John Stevenson, MP for Carlisle and current chair of the Northern Research Group, told his Conservative colleagues last week that they should stop talking about a new transpennine link and call it the ‘Charles Line’, to emphasise that it would be the northern equivalent of the Elizabeth Line.  

That’s a brilliant redefinition of what is needed, that might even get transport planners in London to push it up their agenda.  But it will still need funding, and that will require sustained funding from southern taxpayers to support the regeneration of the north.  And that will also present a major challenge to Liberal Democrats, with a parliamentary party after the next election likely drawn predominantly from London and the home counties – but hoping in the election following to make gains in the north.  

Unless the gross inequalities between Britain’s richer and poorer regions are not reduced, our country will face further economic decline and political discontent.  The politics of fiscal redistribution, and of increased public investment, are however very difficult; those In richer regions resist paying for economic and social development elsewhere.  How will we find the arguments to win over northern voters in the election campaign of 2028-9?


* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • I suggest that the problem is this government’s mindset. It has no interest in the greater good. Whether it is the climate disaster, contempt for the NHS staff, energy planning or food costs, this government will always look solely to the benefit of its own. Even between the Porsche towns of the southern Home Counties, public transport is poor, hospitals struggle and libraries close. And it’s so hard to find reliable cleaners and gardeners.
    If naming a new railway ‘Elizabeth’ barely saw it through, then ‘Charles’ has no chance – unless he pays for it himself. Is it time to move away from spotlighting the failure to invest in our future as a regional issue? I’m sure the government is relaxed about the regions competing against each other for its favour. Divide and rule serves them well.
    The UK as a whole is suffering and doesn’t have a collective voice that could bring about the changes we need. The Liberal Democrats expend quite a lot of energy concentrating on differences, from regional representation to race and gender. There is much less focus, apparently, on common interests. Is this why the party has done so poorly at the national level over the years? What do we offer the nation that might inspire millions more to vote for us? I’m not belittling efforts to get better transport for my own region, but there is an underlying reason for the mess we are all in – together.

  • Peter Davies 14th Jun '23 - 4:43pm

    “cynicism about London’s neglect of the former industrial north”. The English Transport portfolio has been held by a London MP for a total of 10 months. That compares with 5 years when it was held by MPs representing Scotland. It’s not up to London to take care of the North. It’s up to the UK government.

  • Great article. As Lord Wallace highlights there is a long history to investment being held back in rail and tram links in so many parts of the country. Changes of funding formulas by the Treasury for new public transport infrastructure (which have in many respects favoured London and the South East ) are desperately needed. However, if we are to really change things we need to also recognise the inequalities within regions as well, as opposed to just playing one region of the country against another. London might have higher average incomes than other parts of the country (and some areas of immense wealth), but is does also have high pockets of child poverty and deprivation – Barking is very different from large parts of Kensington and Chelsea and Richmond is very different from Peckham, Deptford, Tottenham, Tower Hamlets or Woolwich. And lets not pretend that there are no pockets of real wealth north of Watford: https://www.cheshire-live.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/millionaires-row-10-most-expensive-22824492. Overlooking inequalities that exist in every part of the country does no favours to anyone. And while the biggest changes are needed by the Treasury lets also not pretend that cities have some levers to make changes irrespective of who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Improving public transport desperately needs action at a national level, but there are real changes that can also be made at a city level as well. Nottingham is just one example of bold decisions being made to improve public transport: https://www.transportnottingham.com/policies/nottinghams-workplace-parking-levy-10-year-impact-report/

  • George Thomas 14th Jun '23 - 10:07pm

    “those In richer regions resist paying for economic and social development elsewhere. ”

    Many, many young people move from all over England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland and further afield to London and the South-East of England. It’s a cycle where investment is in a narrow stretch of the UK which attracts jobs, attracts workers, ensures private companies are eager to invest further which improves infrastructure and migration towards these areas continues. Migration away from these areas is typically people who cannot afford to live there or older people looking at retirement – less economically active.

    Maybe the winning argument is that many people working the South-East of England weren’t born there and that they’ll either want services to retire to or want services to support their older relatives in their home towns, which cannot exist without investment into poorer regions and nations.

    Should probably acknowledge that many areas within London are deprived as well. And that at least the north of England stands to gain from HS2 whereas a stitch-up ensures Wales misses out completely.

    Are we really so broken that the only way of getting investment into north of England is to name it after a royal?

  • Peter Martin 15th Jun '23 - 8:09am

    ” those In richer regions resist paying for economic and social development elsewhere.”

    Yes, but they’ll still end up paying one way or another. Those who live in the South East of England need to ask themselves if they want a continual net migration into their region which puts an ever increasing strain on their infrastructure. They’ll need more schools, more roads, more hospitals and of course more housing.

    “Levelling Up” could be renamed as a process of fiscal equalisation to ensure that all parts of the UK, at least as far as possible, are equally economically active. It means spending more in the poorer areas which have spare resources and so won’t cause extra inflation and less in the wealthier parts which will.

    It should be a no-brainer!

  • Peter Davies 15th Jun '23 - 9:29am

    It is important to remember that 70% of Crossrail’s budget came from the capital. Funding came from TfL and the Greater London Authority. London’s businesses also paid a Crossrail levy. Heathrow and Canary Wharf contributed too. Central government’s contribution roughly corresponds to the bits outside London.

    If the North wants to draw a lesson from the Elizabeth Line, it’s that if you want something done, do it yourself. The North will get proper transport when it gets proper government.

  • Peter Martin 15th Jun '23 - 10:08am

    @Peter Davies,

    Yours is essentially the same attitude that the residents of the more prosperous parts of the EU have towards those in the less prosperous countries. They’ll say: “If you want to spend euros, make sure they are euros you’ve earned. Just like the euros we spend are the euros we’ve earned”.

    It all sounds superficially reasonable but it ignores the reality that in any currency union, currency units tend to gravitate together in the wealthy regions. One of the responsibilities of central government is to push them back out again to ensure that the wealthy regions aren’t running economically too hot and the poorer regions too cold. Incidentally, the big problem with the EU/Eurozone is that it doesn’t have a central government to be able to do that.

    We do. As do the Americans. No-one cares how many dollars Mississippi theoretically owes, via the net levels of Federal spending, to New York State for example. We should make full use of the “levelling up” powers that governments possess. Failure to do this invariably proves to be a false economy. If the UK government, for example, had ensured that Northern Ireland had shared in the growing economic prosperity of the immediate post war period, the 30 year civil war which broke out in the late 60s would have been avoided. It wouldn’t have actually cost anything. All UK residents simply would have been making better and full use of the latent economic potential of the province.

  • Robin Bennett 15th Jun '23 - 11:55am

    I have never understood why a powerful Northern League (Italian political party, not football) has never sprung up. Such a party could make it clear that, as London has the biggest regional subsidy of all – being the Capital – there has to be some compensatory levelling down in the South East. True, there is some subsidy from the Treasury to the English regions other than London and the East and South East of England, just as Scotland benefits from the Barnett formula, but this does not outweigh the benefits of London being the capital.

    The Liberal Party was traditionally more a party of the north, the west and Scotland and Wales. Had it emphasised this in recent elections we might have a more seats in parliament.

    In the “Economist” in the 1960s it was suggested that the Capital move to Marston Moor. As this stands a zero chance of happening, we can start with moving the BBC headquarters and its news, drama, etc. to Salford. .

  • William Wallace 15th Jun '23 - 12:26pm

    Bear in mind the eccentricities and injustices of the local taxation system in England. I have paid full Council Tax on two homes for nearly 40 years, one in Saltaire (a large terraced house) and the other in Wandsworth ( a detached house with a sizable garden). In more years than not, I have paid more Council Tax to Bradford than to Wandsworth, in spite of the widening gap in value of the two houses; the distribution of central funds has not favoured authorities like Bradford. And HMG has spent far more on public infrastructure, out of Treasury funds, in the South-East than in the north in recent decades.

  • Peter Davies 15th Jun '23 - 1:07pm

    @Peter Martin
    That is not my attitude. I think the North should have more control not less money. Scotland has per capita transport spending matching that spent in England by the UK government. It also makes the decisions on where to spend it. The North doesn’t get the funding because it doesn’t have devolved power like Scotland and London.

  • Ian,
    the period from the creation of Northern Ireland in the 1920s to the breakout of the troubles in the 1960s is rarely covered in any depth. The boundary commission appears to have prioritised economic and geographic factors over the wishes of the inhabitants NI 100: Tracing the history of the 100-year-old Irish border. Even so, I believe NI has remained heavily reliant on central government subsidies since its creation.
    I think you are right to say that employment prospects were considerably better in NI compared to the republic in those years with large scale migration being the norm in Southern Ireland as it has been since the days of the Famine and before.
    James Smyth, an emeritus history professor at the University of Notre Dame who grew up in Belfast writes of the causes of the troubles “There was systematic discrimination in housing and jobs. The biggest employer in Belfast was the shipyard, but it had a 95 percent Protestant workforce. In the city of Derry, which had a two-thirds Catholic majority, the voting districts had been gerrymandered so badly that it was controlled politically by [Protestant] loyalists for 50 years.” How the Troubles Began in Northern Ireland The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association modeled themselves on the American civil rights movement and with it the stage for confrontation was set including perhaps, as you say, the skilful manipulation of sectarian fears to bring disorder.

  • David Garlick 15th Jun '23 - 3:17pm

    Levelling up will not be achieved by improving the North alone. Two affluent areas are better than one but I will be campaigning for the ‘missed out midlands’. No doubt other areas will feel equally badly neglected if the North ever gets what it has been promised, let alone what it needs.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Jun '23 - 4:39pm

    What is needed is a social, educational, skills, communications and industrial hub that stretches from Liverpool to Hull that rivals London and the south-east. This means not only geographical but the internet. Increasing the available talent and providing niches from such a pool would mean that the north of England can compete for resources and investment with the remainder of Europe.

  • Sorry to say the Trans Pennine Express is in a worse state than it was when I used to go back to school on it when the Everley Brothers topped the charts. Says it all really.

  • Peter Martin 16th Jun '23 - 9:41am

    @ David Garlick,

    “……but I will be campaigning for the ‘missed out midlands’.”

    That’s fair enough of course. However there’s no need to have a regional competition.

    Perhaps the key indicator of the relative prosperity of any region is the level of internal migration. There is a net loss in the poorer areas and a net gain in the more wealthy. So an initial key objective would be to ensure that the “centre of gravity” in terms of UK population wasn’t continually shifting towards London and the SE of England.

    The levels of incomes, house prices, and unemployment, in each region also needs to be factored in to calculate that the right amount of levelling up, or fiscal equalisation (whatever you want to call it) actually happens.

    We also should distinguish between social and geographical levelling up. London may be a prosperous city but we know that prosperity isn’t well shared out.

  • Adrian Bagehot 23rd Jun '23 - 3:11am

    Now that Crossrail (renamed the Elizabethan Line for monarchist reasons) has proved to be such a success, it really is time that work on Crossrail 2 was pushed ahead as this would add significant capacity and greatly reduce rail journey times between the south west and north east areas of Greater London. There is also a well supported case for the extension of the Bakerloo line.

  • Peter Davies 23rd Jun '23 - 7:03am

    I’m very happy that Crossrail is finished because to actually complete a major infrastructure program these days seems like a miracle but if they had simply kept on digging normal tube lines when they finished the Jubilee, they would have got three built in the time for less money with less disruption, filling in more holes in the network and creating more capacity. The Bakerloo line extension is one of the more obvious ones.

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