David Parkin on a wet lettuce and a limp banana

IT was a central part of the grand plan that would help “level up” Britain and add extra cement to rebuilding the so-called “red wall” which had crumbled to give victory to the Conservatives in the last general election.

But in today’s Britain big ideas from politicians don’t seem to last very long.

Never mind a Prime Minister that failed to last longer than an iceberg lettuce – we’ve got a national rail strategy that doesn’t appear to have the shelf life of an over-ripe banana.

When he won his big 80-seat majority at the general election almost three years ago, Boris Johnson did so with some simple promises.

Yes we all remember: “Get Brexit Done”.

Well that’s been a triumph, hasn’t it?

We’ve got control of our borders, trading overseas is much easier for British businesses and the nations and regions of the UK are united as one.

OK, let’s leave that discussion to another day.

But the big thing Boris said he would deliver would be a more level playing field across the whole of the UK, investing in the parts of the country that didn’t enjoy the benefits that London and the South East had.

According to the Government’s own website, “levelling up” means: “Boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging. spreading opportunities and improving public services, especially in those places where they are weakest.”

A key part of this simple, common sense strategy was to invest in transport infrastructure and services to help improve connectivity between cities and communities giving people better access to jobs and opportunities.

Theresa May’s government having failed to commit to the full plan for the HS2 line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, Boris doubled down and didn’t just confirm he was right behind it but would also back HS3 – the route which runs across the country from Liverpool to Hull and takes in Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and a good number of significant towns in between.

It became known by a new monicker: Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR).

Having been swept into power on a “blue wave” of Tory gains of parliamentary seats in the North and Midlands, it seemed a common sense strategy.

It all sounded positive. It was something, whatever your political hue, that those of us who live in the North could get behind.

I have long advocated that NPR would deliver far more economic and social gains to the North of England than HS2 could ever do.

HS2 was always going to be a much stronger channel from the North and Midlands to the capital than the other way around.

But significantly reduce the travelling times between major Northern cities and you would open up many more benefits to people living there.

As Transport for the North – set up in 2018 as the first sub-national transport body in the UK – outlines, NPR was not a quick fix but would increase rail capacity for the 21st century.

It said: “Featuring new and significantly upgraded railway lines, it will be the region’s single biggest transport investment since the Industrial Revolution.

“It will improve journey times and boost the number of trains per hour, allowing the northern economy to operate on a better level.

“It will transform rail services making it easier to move between the region’s towns and cities.

“It is much more than an infrastructure project – it has the potential to be a social and economic catalyst for the region and the people and businesses of the North.

“It is an investment in infrastructure that will deliver benefits to the economy, quality of life, education and the environment.”

But then Covid happened and the cost of that raised questions over major investment by the Government.

But in November last year, the then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the Integrated Rail Plan for the UK, a £96bn commitment to deliver faster and better rail journeys to more people across the North and Midlands.

It isn’t a lot to ask, really.

The plan meant having to accept that the whole of the rail line across the country would not be electrified but part of it would and improving the speed and quality of rail services would happen much quicker than if it was fully electrified.

Business and political leaders grudgingly accepted the compromise.

I suppose when you are thrown stale crumbs for so long, anything more than that represents a feast.

But when Boris Johnson left office in early September and Liz Truss became Prime Minister, the narrative changed.

It was much more positive.

Not only was her Government going to commit to Northern Powerhouse Rail but also ensure the project to link Bradford was included.


We should have smelled a rat when she also said she was going to save Doncaster Sheffield Airport.

The Government’s backing for NPR lasted all of about three weeks.

New Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was much more circumspect and when the lame duck Prime Minister was replaced by her former leadership rival Rishi Sunak, himself a Northern MP, we waited to hear what his plans for transport would be.

It didn’t take long.

In today’s frenzied media-driven world, we don’t really have to wait for official announcements – news gets leaked to the Press well beforehand.

And soon after Rishi Sunak arrived at Downing Street, we started reading stories that Northern Powerhouse Rail is to be “axed”.

It sounds like we don’t have long to wait to find out whether there is truth to the rumours.

According to Lord McLoughlin, chair of Transport for the North (TfN), the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement next Thursday, should tell us.

“The Chancellor made clear in his first statement to the House of Commons last month that he sees capital spending as vital to a credible economic growth strategy; and as TfN’s research has shown, on those terms alone Northern Powerhouse Rail is beneficial to both the national and northern economies.

“In addition, the last Conservative manifesto was clear on its commitment to build NPR. And furthermore, the Transport Select Committee recommended in August, that the government should revisit the evidence base for the decisions that were made on NPR in the Integrated Rail Plan, and the Chair of that committee then is the new Rail Minister.

“TfN Members are clear that building NPR in full via Bradford is the best option to provide the solution to the capacity constraints on our rail network and underpin the long-term sustainable economic growth for our region.”

Patrick McLoughlin is a former Secretary of State for Transport in David Cameron’s Conservative government and was chairman of the Tory party during Theresa May’s premiership before he was elevated to the House of Lords.

It doesn’t look good, does it?

We often hear demands that politicians unite behind a long-term industrial strategy for the UK.

The argument quite sensibly goes that if the approach to British trade and industry got away from the five-year cycles of government and moved towards something more like a 20 or 30 year vision for the future, it would be able to plan better, work better and perform better.

But in a world where rail strategies and commitments last a matter of weeks then we are miles away from that kind of grown-up vision.

It’s bananas.


Farewell then Leslie Phillips.

Plenty has been written about the suave comic actor who died this week aged 98.

A blonde, slightly smoother version of Terry-Thomas, he was best known for his catchphrases such as: “Well, hello!” and “I say!”.

The BBC story about his death was headlined: “Carry On and Harry Potter star dies aged 98”.

I have to say I didn’t know he was, apparently, the voice of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter films.

And he only appeared in four of the Carry On films: three of the early black and white ones and the lamentable last one, Carry On Columbus.

He also played a British officer in the star-studded D-Day classic The Longest Day and was in three of the Doctor films

Which is where he uttered his best ever line, in my opinion.

Arriving on a hospital ward, he is approached by an attractive nurse, who asks: “Mr Bell?”

To which he replies: “Ding dong, you’re not wrong!”

Have a great weekend.

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