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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

May's Powerhouse (for the north)

Once upon a time you could catch a tram anywhere on Blackpool's promenade all the way to St Annes (and even as far as Lytham) up to 1937. Here is one of the more unusual trams operated on the Fylde coast just passing the tram stop at Manchester Square full of 'happy' holidaymakers enjoying a breezy ride .

I'm not sure if we can call them green shoots, but the statements this week indicating the Prime Minister has reaffirmed the prospectus? put in place by George Osborne (the late Chancellor) to invigorate the economy and infrastructure of the north of England are truly welcome. Likewise the update on development for a new cross Pennine road link (this time with a tunnel) is a positive step to addressing fundamental transport problems for all of us having to traverse east west (and vv) between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Widening the M62 is helpful but merely a band aid response.

Understandably building a tunnel of any length in England requires oodles of reports and consultants, with endless committees engrossed in the minutae of planning, financials and legal issues. We can't expect this vital new link anytime soon. It might be even practical to consider having a dual use tunnel for both rail and road traffic - the add-on tunnelling costs being subvented in part by train operators both freight and passenger. (or even a tram train operation, given that the objectives seem to be direct physical connection between east Manchester environs and Sheffield's western reaches). Both locations having standard gauge tram (sorry light rail) systems which are already expanding exponentially. Lessons can be learned from Holland and the Randstad light rail connections serving key cities and towns in that quite densely populated area.

Of course all of this might well be a tramway too far for the so-called 'experts' advising on tram and train infrastructure in backward Britain. Elsewhere in the world from China to the US, to the middle East and of course western Europe (Netherlands, France and Germany spring to mind) such blue skies approach tends actually to get beyond the consultant level.

The Blackpool and Fylde coast rail and tramway infrastructure has been stalled since the Fleetwood railway service was axed by a Home Counties accountant fifty odd years ago. Plus the original aim of Blackpool Corporation Transport (and Council) to acquire the antiquated Lytham St Annes tram service and incorporate it as an extension of the then upgraded promenade service from Starr Gate southward at least as far as St Annes was voted down by a casting vote of that Borough's Mayor in 1936, consigning successive generations to a torturous bus operations ever after. Of course in time Blackpool's deregulated arms length transport company (BTS) made the important investment in buying outright the devolved 'Blue Bus' or 'Fylde Borough' transport set up, and integrated its services into a Fylde coast system (more or less). Warton and BAE Aerospace connection unfortunately was, and still is, left out. The once all-important south Fylde coast railway has been downgraded to a single track shuttle link from Kirkham to the depressing one platform dead end near to the Royal Oak - and hourly service in either direction using the equivalent of third world rolling stock. This is notwithstanding the relatively affluent communities being served along the way.

It is just possible that new thinking (and doing) by more energetic political faces of all Parties in the northwest could actually achieve a tangible difference in short order to these shortcomings: for Blackpool, for Fleetwood, and for south Fylde communities. A revived 'Mark2' Northern Powerhouse conjoined with the new Combined Local Authority for Lancashire (including the County Council), and strengthened Lancashire Enterprise Partnership would have a sweeping mandate to join the dots as they say and make things happen; whether trans Pennine Tunnel, new Fylde coast tramtrains or reconnecting Fleetwood by rail. But all this visionary stuff requires brave and determined leadership delivering more than speeches, or studies and does away with petty local political bickering.

Blackpool benefitted from Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 with the almost immediate transfer of several Government Ministries and Departments with bags and baggage from London to the Fylde coast. Remnants of that far off evacuation still provide employment in and around Blackpool. The military too found the town to be providently far away from the Luftwaffe to set up all manner of bases and resources. Warton of course became the US Airforce main Bomber repair base in the north of England; whilst Squires Gate (and Stanley Park Airfield) welcomed new investment in bomber assembly and aircraft testing operations. This was all done within a space of months in some cases. Where needs must!

The Fylde now needs to be a forceful player within the Northern Powerhouse initiative gaining new Downing Street endorsement. Strong vocal spokesmen (and women) are called for to leading bold initiatives backed by coordinated platforms Lancashire wide in competence. The Brexit decision is a game changer for Britain and even more so for the north of England. Action Men needed for an Action Plan.

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