George Osborne’s pledge to build a “northern powerhouse” has been condemned as “cynical pre-election spin” as it emerged that the £13bn committed to build it includes routine spending on potholes and maintenance for the A1, which comes out of London.
In further embarrassment, a communities minister was also accused of misleading parliament over the money after he claimed to MPs in the Commons last week that the government was “investing £13bn in rail in the north” for “more trains, newer trains and more regular journeys”. A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has now confirmed that the money is not just for rail.
Before the general election, the chancellor made much of his intention to “make the cities of the north a powerhouse for our economy again – with new transport and science and powerful city governance”, in what was seen as an attempt to steal votes from Labour in its strongholds and in tight marginals such as Crewe.
In a press release in March, the Treasury claimed: “To make the northern powerhouse a reality, the government has already committed to … £13bn of investment in transport in the north of England”. In parliament last week, communities minister James Wharton said: “This government is investing £13bn in rail in the north. There will be more trains, newer trains and more regular journeys.”
It has now emerged, however, that only £3bn of that money is for rail schemes – of which £1.35bn had already been allocated, mainly to upgrades in and around Manchester.
Only £5bn of the remaining £10bn is for major road schemes, including the improvements to the A1. And the remaining £5bn is made up of the standard allocations to local councils through the “Integrated Transport Block Capital Grant” for projects such as bus lanes, cycle lanes, and traffic-calming and “local highways maintenance”, including filling in potholes.
The outstanding £1.65bn for rail works out at £330m a year until 2020, for all of the north-east, Yorkshire and the north-west. Local politicians claim such amounts will prove too little to make any major infrastructure improvements.
Andy Burnham, the MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester and the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, called for an apology from the DCLG for misleading MPs. He said: “David Cameron must look at whether ministers have knowingly misled the Commons. George Osborne’s much-vaunted northern powerhouse has been exposed for what it is: cynical, pre-election spin. It is getting the same from the Tories that it’s always had: a northern powercut.
“If Osborne’s commitment to the north is to have any credibility, he must put his money where his mouth is and listen to long-suffering rail passengers. As Labour leader, I will devolve power to local communities and put them in the driving seat of transport planning.”
The latest embarrassment over the northern powerhouse claim follows the announcement that the government had shelved promised and vital upgrades to major rail lines in the Midlands and the north of England, just weeks after the election in which the Conservatives campaigned on rebalancing the country. Critics claimed that the government knew that those plans, central to the northern powerhouse vision, would have to be shelved a long time before the general election but had avoided announcing it for fear of losing votes.
A DCLG spokesman said: “The northern powerhouse is part of the government’s long-term economic plan to rebalance growth across the regions and nations of the UK.
“The northern powerhouse is more than transport investment. Government has committed to invest in science and technology, transport, digital and innovation, culture and tourism across the region. Alongside devolving power, this gives the north a powerful new voice.”
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