Jeremy Middleton, founder of Middleton Enterprises

In the latest of a series of articles looking at the areas potentially boosted by a North East devolution deal and mayoral leadership, Jeremy Middleton looks at how we might boost connectivity.

For the North East to prosper, we will need to get better connections with...well with a lot of places.

Now, that's normally when the topic turns to the benefits of HS2 and the need to upgrade our roads. We do need to do both of those things.

However, it won't alter the fact that they will take a very long time to deliver and will cost a lot of money. For example, it is estimated that HS2 will cost the UK about £50billion. Now you have to make the big calls or the country's core infrastructure will never be improved - and improving our rail network will be good for the whole country, including us.

However, it does make you wonder if there aren't other projects where a lot less money might deliver us an awful lot more. Now this should be the cue for me to call for the HS3 rail connection through the region to Scotland and for an upgrade of the A1 to motorway all the way to Scotland. Those are important projects but, whatever we do, we will still be quite a long way from Liverpool and London. And we will never be closer to Manchester than Leeds, making it tough to achieve a competitive advantage!

I know we need major and minor improvements, but sometimes I wonder whether we couldn't get our public money to do something a little more exciting...a little more innovative...and a little sooner

So what big, quicker wins could we go for? As I'm not an economist, I may not have the economic impact quite right, but let me suggest a few things that might change the game up here.

What about implementing the latest, fastest superfast broadband everywhere in our region, leapfrogging to 4G wireless if necessary? In recent years we’ve had more technology company start-ups than anywhere outside London, and we’re one of the leading centres for digital games development etc. More importantly it's a key requirement for all our businesses. It's coming, but if it takes more cash to get there before everyone else then that will probably give us the best bang for our investment buck.

Can we increase our international air connections? When the Emirates route first opened, some wondered if it would survive, but it has been an overwhelming success and we now have a thriving trade with the Middle East and Far East. This is real business growth and real jobs. I’m sure that the new direct links to New York will have a similar impact. We need our airport to succeed and there are lots of ways we can support it. Making it an Enterprise Zone would help! The major way it can help our businesses is by opening more international direct flights.

What about a faster East Coast rail line? Our single biggest trading partner is London. 35 years ago, I used to do a lot of business in London. The quickest route was two hours 20 minutes to Kings Cross. Today, the quickest route is 20 minutes longer. So much for progress!

Despite also being Northern Powerhouse conurbations, Manchester takes nearly as long on the train and Liverpool even longer. A mere 60 miles away, Carlisle, by rail or car, can take 90 minutes, and I couldn’t tell you how long it would take to get to Hull, because the links are so laborious that most will simply never go there and little in the way of trade is done between here and Humberside as a result.

I'm told the easiest, fastest, biggest impact initiative that would boost connectivity is to reopen the disused Leamside Line freight connection between Tursdale and Pelaw. By doing this, we could shift lots of freight off the East Coast line, delivering faster freight and passenger trains with increased capacity. Expensive? Well, yes – about £200m - or less than 0.5% of HS2!

Can we have a smart pass, like London’s Oyster card, allowing use of any form of publicly-supported transport across the North East, speeding up access and boosting passenger numbers. It's in planning - let's get it over the line.

There have been proposals around to restart a ferry connection with Scandinavia; that would be good for trade and tourism. Surely in an optimistic rising economy it's time to look again?

Can we have a coordinated plan for all our ports? Our commercial ports do a great job - but how good are the connections to them? How well is their offering coordinated? Is trust status the best way to get major investment into them?

George Osborne's Northern Powerhouse is predicated on improved connectivity between Northern city regions. Part of the idea is that the sum of the Northern conurbations is more than its individual elements. And faster connections to the North, South and West will be a big boost to our economy. But devolution is also about empowering local communities to make sure the money available to them is spent most effectively.

To my mind, giving the North East the power to get on and deliver some of the more modest projects could help us develop our competitive edge rather faster than waiting for national one-size-fits-all policies to turn up.

Jeremy Middleton is founder of Middleton Enterprises, a £50m investment company based on Tyneside. He is also a board member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

ENDS

ISSUED ON BEHALF OF MIDDLETON ENTERPRISES

CONTACT: Paul White on 01325 363436

Notes to Editors:

Middleton Enterprises Ltd is a private investment company that has made a substantial contribution to the North East’s economy by investing in and providing business advice to entrepreneurial businesses.

During recent years, it has supported a number of North East businesses, generally from start-up, usually taking a minority stake and offering strategic advice to support growth.

Jeremy Middleton

Mr Middleton is a high-profile entrepreneur and philanthropist based in Newcastle. He started his career as a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble before working for PriceWaterhouseCoopers as a Marketing Consultant. He co-founded HomeServe, now a FTSE 250 company which operates in the UK, the USA, France, Spain and Italy, and remains a shareholder with a seat on the Executive Committee. He is a director at North East based energy and water consultancy company Utilitywise PLC.

Mr Middleton and his family are active supporters of Maggie’s Centre and World Vision, an international charity which works to improve the lives of people in developing countries.

Mr Middleton has carried out a range of sponsored fundraising for a variety of charities which to date include the North Pole, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, The Haute Route, Mount McKinley, Mount Elbrus and a cycle ride from London to Paris.

Mr Middleton has been a Board Member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) since 2011 and is Chairman of the North East LEP Investment Fund, which makes recommendations to the LEP Board for the £25m Growing Places Fund and the £30m Infrastructure Fund.

In 2012 Jeremy was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for Services to Politics and Charities.

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Jeremy Middleton, founder of Middleton Enterprises
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