BLOG: As the Tories 'unpause' rail plans, where is Labour's alternative to the Northern Powerhouse?

Jeremy Corbyn made no mention of his plans for the North Credit: PA

By Daniel Hewitt - Political Reporter

In the week Tories arrive in Manchester for their Autumn conference, yesterday we learned they come bearing gifts for their northern hosts - rail electrification is back on.

It'll take seven years to upgrade lines from Manchester to York and beyond (three years longer than previously promised) and will save commuters up to 15 minutes in precious journey time.

Conveniently for Conservative Ministers it will also save them from answering some very awkward questions at conference, which starts on Sunday. Both the Chancellor George Osborne and the Department for Transport were widely criticised in June for 'temporarily pausing' a project they had made great play of during the General Election campaign.

Indeed the Chancellor's own political reputation and rebrand has been built on the concept, and the promise, of a 'northern powerhouse'. It's hard to believe some degree of political manoeuvring had nothing to do with the timing of yesterday's announcement.

I say concept, because the 'northern powerhouse' remains very much that, a concept. On a recent visit to China to secure investment in the project, northern Labour leaders including Manchester's Sir Richard Leese and Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson regularly referenced the 'Northern Powerhouse' as if it already exists, as though it has been built and is up-and-running. George Osborne has been guilty of the same for four months.

The fact is almost 18 months after the Chancellor first came up with the idea in Manchester, northern trains are still as old and still as slow, serious power is yet to be devolved from Whitehall to Merseyside, Yorkshire or the North East, Lancashire has rejected fracking, regional economies here continue to lag behind the south-east, and HS2 isn't coming anytime soon.The powerhouse remains in the planning stage - and substance remains in short supply.

Of course a plan of such ambition takes time, and will face snags along the way. The principles and promises of the 'northern powerhouse' remain broadly popular with politicians in the north, on the left and the right. Many Labour councillors here suspect the Chancellor's plan is as political in its intentions as it is economic, but they also recognise he has galvanised a crucial debate on the mammoth divide between north and south that has given birth to cross-party agreement on how it may closed.

And it's a debate the Tories are dominating. Much cynicism, suspicion and frustration may surround the plan - but at least they have one. Meanwhile, what is Labour's plan for the north? Where is their alternative to Mr Osborne's Northern Powerhouse?

During his leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn described the Chancellor's plan as a 'cruel deception' and announced instead his 'Northern Futures' agenda. Describing devolving powers to northern town halls as 'tokenism', it instead calls for national solutions to regional problems, proposes revitalising the north's 'industrial base' and doesn't mentioning the word 'science' once.Put those two options to the leaders of Labour councils across the North West - do you want more powers over health, housing, jobs and planning, or would you like to see central government re-open disused coal mines and create a national investment bank? You'll get a swift answer.

Yet whatever their answer, right now Labour isn't even asking the question.

In his conference speech on Tuesday, Jeremy Corbyn didn't mention the north of England once. Not a single reference to 'Northern Futures'. No vision to regenerate and revitalise the economy here, or address the gap between north and south. No scrutiny of the northern powerhouse. The Labour Party simply isn't talking about the north of England.

The 'pausing' and delay of projects like rail electrification shows the desperate need for real scrutiny of the Chancellor's plan. Yet without a viable alternative, there can be little accountability. While Mr Corbyn dismisses the Northern Powerhouse as a 'deception', his local councillors are clambering to be a part of it - they know Mr Osborne's plan is the only show in town.

Labour needs the North, and right now the North needs Labour. Many may find the Tories' plan for the north cynical, but at least they have one, and at least they're willing to talk about it.