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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Show me a 'northern powerhouse'

Sheffield to Manchester Express - private sector run with reasonable fares, good service, Guards and Ticket Collectors on trains and two man crew at the front.

Apart from the political infighting and rifts within Labour and the ground breaking UKIP movement single handedly responsible for shifting the Conservatives on to the promise of a national referendum over UK Membership of the EU - the most interesting outflow from the June 23rd plebiscite has been insightful media programmes on how and why the political establishment were caught short.

The fallout from that national revolt against the established order in this country runs on. Politicians of all hues and persuasions remain jittery at what happens next. It is amazing to hear night after night on the talk shows offering 'responsible' comment and discussion spokesmen and women in denial at the huge differential between economic and social norms within the orbit of London influence, and the rest of England and Wales. In-depth coverage of communities from Margate to Teesside, Boston to the Welsh valleys brings out vividly widespread antipathy towards the presumptions of Westminster politicians and their overpaid lobbyists. Its hardly surprising that the national mood of sticking two fingers in the air to the Westminster and City elites, was a given full steam on June 23rd.

The mood hasn't changed, in fact it has hardened after this shock inflicted on the 'haves' by the 'have nots' who felt at least they could register a protest vote - which turned out to be national revolt.

The disparities in wealth, income and infrastructure between London and its environs, and everywhere else are self-evident and should have been cause for alarm decades ago. The dismantling and disarming of the country's industrial assets under successive Conservative governments was to some extent triggered by labour union excesses. Not that Labour in office did much about this undermining of social structure when it had its time in power. While towns and cities elsewhere in our former spheres of interest demonstrate growth and vitality through the physical investment and their skylines - the heartland of England (and Wales) has continued a slow incessant meandering decline relying on the rash of 'shopping centres' to mask loss of meaningful employment and opportunities for school leavers. Call centres, warehouse zombie work with zero hour offers on minimum wage levels; supermarket shelf stackers and fast foot outlets together with care workers (on minimum wage and equally minimal training in 'care') are the options facing many coming into the 'job market'.

A belated political stab to pierce this reality was the 'Northern Powerhouse' promoted by the former Chancellor seen in hard hat and high viz vest every week in time for the morning and evening news hour slots. Frequently this took place in Derby against a backdrop of new trains being built by foreign manufacturers for a foreign owned railway franchise somewhere in Britain. Soon it will be a similar set piece in the northeast with Japanese designed rolling stock intended for the East Coast mainline or similar high speed branded service (premium priced of course). Whether the 'HS2' 'HS3' makes it beyond the pretty visuals and media promotions has to be in doubt - does Britain's economic prognosis now justify huge capital expenditures to hurtle people that little bit faster towards the capital (and back again) at mind boggling fares? A whiff of Concorde can be detected against the backdrop of oily financial, construction and equipment interests all rubbing their hands in anticipation of multi billions of government (ie public) largesse potentially heading their way to benefit a tiny minority of the population.

In the meantime travellers, particularly in the north, struggle against ever lengthening traffic queues and bottlenecks to reach their *office, warehouse, delivery point, family, sick relative, sporting event *(choose the correct one). The M62 is a northern disaster and highways agency disgrace. Cross country trains serving dense local communities in Lancashire (and Yorkshire) are disjointed and a local joke despite the smug commentaries of Michael Portillo esconced in pastel coloured blazers riding his sedate way around the country on the current television series. Plans for large capital schemes are temptingly announced and then quietly dropped, diluted or deferred. Town centres rot with a plague of all too familiar plastic facia cloned retail and coffee shop brands backed by hedge fund owners. Not to mention the creeping invasion of the charities many of whom are now really retail operators under a 'good cause' guise whilst luring the well meaning to provide unpaid staffing assets.

Closer to home Blackpool is no exception to this economic malaise. There are some unique exceptions which bravely stand out on the grossly uneven economic playing field which is our town centre - but each week sees another empty storefront where an independent business has given up the ghost faced with higher rents, council taxes and utility bills. Corporate greed and investor malpractise puts paid to once valued national brands (and banks). Local authorities lack the sophistication to deal with sharp practises of slick financial firms and their tax advisors focussing on the avoidance side. Sometimes however the good guys win - in communities like Hebden Bridge, York, Southport and even Lytham.

There is one ray of positivity in this northern gloom and doom. Local Authorities in Lancashire acknowledging ever harder economic realities, are now coming together under a very large umbrella to share and cojoin on strategies and policies which might just make a difference medium and long term. The idea that places like South Ribble, Hyndburn, Wyre, Fylde or Blackpool can continue to deal with fast moving impact of technology and global market trends on their own is recognised as a worse than uphill challenge. Our Council have opted to form part of the 'new order' in Lancashire; one which may well not only impinge on local transport but actually vastly improve its resource and real development. In concert with the LEP - Lancashire Enterprise Partnership - there just might emerge a forthright platform through which to interface with central government and its layers of unknowing 'experts' based entirely in and around London. Ideally having our voices in Parliament actually embedded in Blackpool and the Fylde coast might also help. But that's for another rant.

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