Why We Need Our Very Own Version Of “The Northern Powerhouse”
Written by Peter Jones, Partner at Smith and Jones
It was business as usual on a recent Friday; the railway companies were busy cancelling trains running west of Exeter; the track at Dawlish was under threat, again.
The line between Dawlish and Teignmouth was washed away in February 2014, leaving Torbay, Plymouth and the whole of Cornwall isolated.
Eight weeks later, the line reopened but not before causing significant disruption and cost, not only to the individual but the economy as a whole. The calculated cost to the economies involved was calculated at £20m per day; a total of over £1bn.
Network Rail, after carrying out essential “Band-Aid” repairs (at a cost of £35m), was charged with finding a strategic solution to ensure that the far south-west would never have to suffer the same fate again.
Four years on, very little seems to have happened. There are no committed; timetabled plans. Meanwhile, each winter sees closure after closure.
How can this be? Do we simply not count in the eyes of central government down here in this part of the world, one recently described by the Department of Transport as one of “the extremities”?
It appears not. There are certainly options for railway resilience. Until Beeching, there were two lines to Plymouth, the northern of which went through Okehampton and Tavistock. Being cut off was never an option, even at the height of war. Much of that line is still in use, and the central section that was closed could be reinstated,
Furthermore, there were plans in the 1930’s to build an inland line to bypass the Dawlish coastal route. This plan is still a possibility.
Either or both options would deliver resilience to the communities, businesses, institutions, and citizens fortunate enough (or in this context, unfortunate enough) to live west of Dawlish.
The problem seems to be one of will, in the corridors of power. We all know that “there is no magic money tree”. To bring total resilience to Devon and Cornwall would come with a price-tag, calculated variously as between £250m and £1.5bn. This is no small price to pay. However, it can be seen as a drop in the ocean in comparison with the eye-watering amounts (latest estimate £60bn+) committed to HS2, which is not about resilience. Instead, HS2 aims to deliver greater capacity and improved journey times.
Our issue is about survival, not comfort and convenience. So £60bn+ is seen as a price well worth paying for HS2. Yet a tiny fraction of that is seen as a commitment too far in the context of the Peninsula. Why is that?
I think it’s largely about ‘brand’, and reputation, an arena I’ve worked in all my career. There tends to be a time lapse between changed realities and perceptions. People are comfortable with their prejudices; it takes a lot to force reappraisal.
I grew up in East Cornwall and went to school in Plymouth. I’m really proud of what the West Country has become but the reputation lags behind.
Heritage and DNA are unparalleled. What an opportunity Mayflower 400 represents and the Nancy Astor Appeal is a fabulous ambassador for the spirit of our people. The education offer is as good as it gets.
Exeter is a leading Russell Group university, with global leadership status in a number of disciplines, not least Environmental Science. Plymouth is one of the best of the 1992 group, recognised as one of the leading modern universities, with all that brings. Falmouth’s reputation continues to grow. All offer support after graduation, including incubation, so there is no need to move away.
The opportunity to enjoy a great lifestyle here has never been in doubt. That can now be broadened to encompass all of the other things that people increasingly seek in life; health, wellbeing, education, opportunity, career.
Millennials aspire to a genuinely balanced life. London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds are unlikely to deliver on that. But we do. So why is there so little tangible government support, particularly when it comes to the transport infrastructure?
The “extremity” description is the clue; our part of the world is lazily regarded as great for a couple of weeks of “chillaxing”; otherwise it is seen as a place where people go to wind down, to retire, and die. It is most certainly not perceived as on a par with the “Northern Powerhouse”, nor indeed, the “Midlands Engine”. And that’s just so wrong; this is a part of the country whose time has most definitely come.
If we’re to compete, we need to create and get behind a proposition that will force reappraisal and allow us to punch above our weight. What will be at the core of that? A good first step would be to take a look at the west coast of the USA. That part of North America used to be known for its fabulous lifestyle offer and not much else besides. That’s all changed.
Stretching from San Diego to Seattle, the west coast now enjoys a reputation for creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and success with environmental responsibility a major element. It is future facing with its own distinct attitude and personality, too.
We can be the UK equivalent; highly successful and aspirational, yet deeply resonant at the human level.
So let’s do it with clarity and vigour.
Then – and only then – will we be much more likely to get our fair share when it comes to meaningful government support and investment in our infrastructure.
Peter Jones is a partner at smithandjones.biz