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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Fantasy Powerhouse and Historic Reality

Andy Burnham, having moved into the new [and partly undefined] job of a civic mayor has joined in the clamour - which resonates over the Pennines but hardly gains a mention in the London media - as to what has become of George Osborne's 'Northern Powerhouse'. The idea, such as it was, was to persuade Chinese and other foreigners to invest in Manchester and Leeds [and possibly Sheffield and Liverpool], to begin to lift those cities out of the post-industrial depression into which the Thatcher-Major-Blair-Brown-Cameron-Clegg continuum had left them. The concept was predicated on the assumption that there were no significant government funds, beyond the mega-scheme for a bifurcation of the [Chinese financed]  HS2 railway to Manchester and to Leeds, north of Birmingham and perhaps some electrification of other lines in the north [to be paid for by the Network Rail budget; not by the government directly]. So a great bubble of talk was built up, Vice-Chancellors pledged their universities to help with surveys and research and local councils hoped to bring their districts into a new co-prosperity sphere.

No material structures were built. A few alien takeovers were made of firms in northern cities. Then came the Brexit vote, Mrs May, the removal of George Osborn and the dissolution of his verbal construct. He asserted that the powerhouse concept would continue, but [notwithstanding his editorship of a London paper] he was just a voice who occasionally visited the wilderness of the north.

Thus the desolation that Andy Burnham sees dragging on into the future is the most realistic prospect for the areas that were exposed to Osborne's 'powerhouse' fantasy. This contrasts directly with the picture as it was half a century ago. Under the Labour Government of 1945 the supposedly exhausted and bankrupt country that is depicted in Econocratically-influenced history set about rebuilding the railways. They began with a massive northern powerhouse project: a fully-electrified, largely newly-routed railway over [and through] the Pennines, between Lancashire and Yorkshire and planned to link with electrified east and west-coast main lines between the midlands of England and the midlands of Scotland. The massive Woodhead Tunnel was driven through the higher hills on the route, and the new Sheffield-Manchester route was a subject of national celebration when it was completed. While the primary use of the railway in its early days was to carry goods, and especially coal as the great source of power for the new economy, it was seen as a significant first step in modernising the entire rail network, as was to be done on the continent over the next couple of decades.

Then came Mr MacMillan and the motorways; and the decision that the country would not afford to develop the railways and new roads: even though the continentals were doing just that. Then, eventually, came Blair and Cameron and the promise to phase out coal burning power stations; which was logical as the Thatcher gang had shut the mines and coal - unlike oil, which had been found under British home waters - had to be imported, to the detriment of the balance of payments. The last vestiges of the real, material northern powerhouse were destroyed: symbolised by the closure of the Woodhead Tunnel. Sheffield and Manchester are now linked by a meandering branch railway and by an overcrowded M62; and there is no sign that this will change. This exemplifies a total and dramatic failure of governance, in what used to be a great country.

Just a footnote, on debt. Consumer debt - especially car loans - is a worry for the Bank of England, whose officials have begun to bang on about it. The government is silent on the matter, so far. When the Woodhead Tunnel was being built, the government directly controlled consumer debt: there were controls of hire purchase, a set minimum for the deposit that had to be paid in cash, and control of the period over which the debt could be spread. No-one felt unduly oppressed by such regulation: it was all accepted as being part of a plan for postwar reconstruction of the economy, that people could see was working as homes became available and the roads were repaired after wartime destruction and decay. Hope and promise were in the air: so control of credit was no harm at all. Now the government is under the influence of the Econocrats who would oppose any reintroduction of state control of credit, which [they say] is the business of the banks and the supposedly-independent Bank of England. So we are exposed to a credit crunch, again: to set alongside material failure of the economy.

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