North of England: Infrastructure Spending
Published date : 25 November, 2020
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this important debate. I heard one or two murmurs as I came into the Committee this morning: “What on earth is an SNP member for the north-east of Scotland doing intruding on a debate like this?” Let me put hon. Members’ minds at rest: it is not to provoke a regeneration of the Wars of the Roses. I think some Members have been quite capable of stirring that up all by themselves, and I take no sides; I am strictly neutral in that. However, it quite simple for me: whether Scotland is inside the UK, as everybody else in this room presumably hopes, or outside the UK, as I earnestly hope it will be, the infrastructure—particularly the transport infrastructure—in the north of England matters to us as well. There are extensive business and family connections between Scotland and the north of England—or not-the-north-of-England, depending on whether we include Stoke-on-Trent, and where we draw the demarcation.
The north of England lies between us and markets in the south of England, as well as crucial markets in Europe, so it matters to us that the A1 is so poor after Berwick, and between Berwick and Newcastle. It matters
to us that the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner, which gives access to Yorkshire and the east midlands, should be accessible in all weathers. In that respect, what matters to people in Scotland probably matters as much to the communities all along those corridors. Particularly important is the discussion about what goes where, to what timescale and, crucially—as noted by the hon. Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who is no longer in his place—who gets to decide. It is not just about existing infrastructure; future infrastructure in Scotland is also affected by what is or is not decided for the north of England and the rest of the UK.
Let me return to the subject of HS2. It is clear that there are diverse views in the governing party on the merits or otherwise of HS2, perhaps governed in some part by how close MPs are likely to be to a station on the route that is chosen. For us in Scotland, however, it is quite simple: there is a real benefit in relation to climate. If we can get the journey from Edinburgh, Glasgow and other parts of central Scotland to London below four hours, that is an absolute game changer. Nobody would fly, unless they were going somewhere close to the airport. If somebody is going from central Scotland to central London, of course they would take a high-speed train. It is a game changer.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Not so much in Scottish politics, but certainly in Northern Irish politics, it is a bit of a standing joke that whenever a bauble needs to be dangled, there is talk of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are tremendous technical challenges with that going over Beaufort’s dyke, which is exceptionally deep and full of munitions. Technically, it would be extraordinarily challenging. However the Green Book formula works out, I do not think we will ever see a benefit-cost ratio that will make such a project work, but I am content to let the accountants and number crunchers work that one out. Certainly, in theory, if we could create better connections in the south-west of Scotland and link Northern Ireland to Scotland and elsewhere, I am all in favour of that.
On HS2, if the line is to split either side of the Pennines, it is pretty important to us in Scotland to know on which side of the Pennines it will go. If it goes both sides, logically it is going to head north more slowly than it would otherwise. That matters, because if it goes by Carlisle, we would build a high-speed rail network in Scotland between Glasgow, Edinburgh and Carlisle. If it goes up through Newcastle, we would link Glasgow to Edinburgh and Berwick, and go down that way. Frankly, there is no point spending any money until there is absolute certainty about which way the line will go. That affects the rest of Scotland, because we would be building new infrastructure that would free up train paths capacity and give line speed improvements for the rest of the rail network in Scotland to get into Edinburgh and Glasgow, so the decisions that are or are not taken also matter to us.
There is little doubt that if HS2 had started in Scotland to go to London, rather than t’other way about, it would have happened a great deal faster than it now appears to be happening. That sums up the problem. We can change the formulas in the Treasury’s Green Book, but changing attitudes is another matter entirely. The Prime Minister once notoriously stated that a pound spent in Croydon was worth more than a pound spent in Strathclyde, and I think we can take it that such an attitude also prevails for Merseyside, Manchester and Tyneside. It is quite an embedded mindset in the British Government class—I do not think it is as rare as some hon. Members might wish to think. We will hear later today about the Chancellor’s spending plans and see what transpires.
My final observation is that since 1999, under various shades of political administration, Scottish Governments—whether the Lib-Lab coalition, minority SNP or majority SNP—have moved on investment in Scotland considerably better than in the bad old days of rule from the Scotland Office and Westminster. That is why it is crucial where decisions are taken and why devolution ought to be such an important part of this debate for the north of England.
The UK Internal Market Bill is set to encroach on many of Holyrood’s powers, including the power to set infrastructure spending. Under the guise of “taking back control”, the UK Government are in many respects actually taking away control, and I know it is not just people in my party who regret that that is the case. London clearly receives 60% more per head in capital expenditure than the north-east of England, and 50% more than the north-west. Ultimately, that dial needs to be shifted.
In conclusion, I strongly suspect that it will take a great deal more than today’s announcement to shift that decades-old structural imbalance in where power really lies in the UK, because that power imbalance has roots in politics and the electoral system, and it goes well beyond simple allocations of public expenditure.
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