Let’s take it for granted, NPR can be a game-changer

It’s easy to take things for granted. Quick internet access, for example, is an absolute necessity nowadays. I know people who’d rather go thirsty than be without their smartphone. But broadband in Britain was only introduced in 2000. Look how much things have changed since then.

Mark Bush was Britain’s first broadband customer. He’d created a hobbyist website about combat flight called Frugalsworld.com. In the early days it was just a few pages of rudimentary text. But thanks to high-speed internet access, the site morphed into a flight simulation game with 1.2m users per month at its height.

That highlights the leverage and power of fast connectivity to the world wide web and the multiple growth opportunities that it brings for individuals, businesses and communities. Broadband’s been a total game-changer. Northern Powerhouse Rail can have the same effect on Bradford district.

Transport for the North has just published its draft strategic blueprint for the next three decades, setting out an “ambitious but realistic” plan for how £70bn in infrastructure investment could transform the region and rebalance the UK economy. The plan’s centrepiece is NPR, a fast rail line from Liverpool to Newcastle with a new link between Manchester and Leeds via Bradford.

The document singles out the impact that NPR would have on Bradford, home to half a million people and the fifth largest economy in the Northern Powerhouse region, currently worth £10.5bn.

It says NPR is “central to unlocking opportunity and transformational growth in Bradford”, calculating that it will double the number of people and businesses within reach of the city and provide access to 750,000 more job opportunities in the key economic sector of the North.

NPR would more than halve journey times to Leeds, Manchester, Manchester Airport, Liverpool and York, putting Bradford at the heart of an integrated economic area across the North. The document notes that two key station options are under consideration, a parkway south of the city at Low Moor and a city centre station. It says the city centre option offers the real strategic opportunity to bring new transformational opportunities.

Subject to board approval, Transport for the North will officially launch its plans on Monday February 11 and these will form the group’s statutory advice to Government on the North’s ongoing priorities for enhancing sustainable and inclusive connectivity across the wider region.

Luke Raikes, senior research fellow at think tank IPPR North, summed it up for me when he said: “This is a bold but realistic plan to drag our creaking transport network into the 21st century. It sets up the North for the economic transformation it needs to make in the years ahead. Central government must now follow through. Our analysis shows that transport spending is twice as high per person in London compared to the North.

“Most importantly, the North needs to have the authority to deliver [this] plan which states that Transport for the North needs to have control over budgets and decision making. This is absolutely essential. The investment plan cannot be put at risk of the kind of central government dithering we’ve seen for many decades – and especially in recent years.”

I’ll politely echo that: no more dithering please. A Treasury commitment to fund NPR would not be an end in itself but allow Bradford and its partners to make the case for hundreds of simple investments in infrastructure, connectivity and place that could really help the district and the North to thrive.

Investment breeds confidence and creates certainty. Everyone wants a share in success. All of a sudden, Bradford becomes seen as Britain’s next big growth story, the best place to start a business, the best place to buy a house with a garden, the best place to raise a family and the best place to nurture the next generation of prosperous, creative and socially minded entrepreneurs. The advent of broadband opened up a whole new digital world of opportunities. NPR can have the same effect on Bradford, Yorkshire, the North and the UK. We should take that for granted.

  • Dave Baldwin is chairman of Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley FC

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