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The Union Connectivity Review and Unionism

Published: 16 December 2021

Dan Wincott, Cardiff University and CCC Fellow, examines Sir Peter Hendry's Union Connectivity Review and what it reveals about the Union, covering the ‘Boris Bridge’, connectivity in Wales, and inconsistencies in the Review.

In 2018, as foreign secretary Boris Johnson proposed building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland ‘to bring the UK back together after Brexit’. Three years on, the Union Connectivity Review finally put this idea to bed. Though technically feasible research commissioned for Sir Peter Hendry’s review found the bridge’s cost ‘impossible to justify’.  This episode reveals a hollowness to the Unionism espoused by the UK government – at once abrasive and much more show than substance.

It is, of course as legitimate for a Conservative UK government to bolster the Union as for its SNP counterpart to push for Scotland’s independence. Created with an explicit mission to strengthen the Union, The Connectivity Review opens with evidence that people who cross its internal borders express stronger pro-Union views.

Equally, the Review’s internal inconsistency is itself deeply revealing about the character of the Union and the role of devolved authorities. While it enhances the quality of debate about infrastructure, Hendry’s Review does not fully reconcile its mission to strengthen the Union with other concerns over ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling-up’. Ultimately, the Review reveals contradictions that run right through how the Union is viewed by its central authorities.  

Muscular Unionism and Johnson’s Bridge and Road Initiatives

A £15 billion price-tag was attached to Johnson’s initial proposal for the bridge. As recently as November the BBC was still repeating that figure, while noting that some experts thought £20 billion might be a conservative estimate. The discrepancy with Hendry’s estimates is startling and disturbing. They are an order of magnitude higher: £335 billion for a bridge, or the cheaper tunnel option at £209 billion. If some commentary was incredulous, media analysis of the idea had hardly been forensic.

Though the Democratic Unionists liked it, in both Northern Ireland and Scotland Johnson’s bridge idea rubbed other government leaders up the wrong way. Northern Ireland’s infrastructure minister, the SDLP’s Nicola Mallon and Scottish transport secretary Michael Matheson expressed their concerns to the UK government noting that on this devolved matter ‘absolutely no consultation’ had taken place with them. Despite the costs and impact on devolution, until the publication of the much-delayed Report, the standard UK machinery of government did little to restrain the Prime Minister’s irrationally exuberant support for the idea. 

The Irish Sea Bridge is not the only example of the UK government being tempted to intervene unilaterally in devolved infrastructure plans. Johnson has also flirted repeatedly with the idea the UK government might override a key Welsh government infrastructure decision. Having considered a plan to not to build a by-pass around the M4’s notorious Brynglas tunnel bottleneck near Newport, Drakeford’s administration decided not to pursue it, on environmental grounds. Directly authorising, funding and building the by-pass from London would drive a coach-and-horses through devolution.  By backing the Welsh government’s plan for an integrated transport system in south Wales, the Review quietly side-lined Johnson’s abrasive proposals to countermand its earlier decision on the by-pass.

Taken together, Johnson’s support for the Irish Sea Bridge and M4 by-pass start to look like a pattern. The UK Prime Minister has been keen to display the muscularity of his Unionism. In the end, though, it looks like he has been flexing these Unionist muscles only for show, like an SW1 bodybuilder. Those who found the ideas appealing may be annoyed by the Prime Minister’s tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. Johnson’s approach to devolved issues has been sufficiently abrasive to beg the question: was antagonising his devolved counterparts part of the plan?  

Union connectivity and the devolution

Hendry writes ‘devolution has been good for transport where delivery has been devolved, but … this has resulted in a lack of attention to connectivity between the nations of the United Kingdom’. It is impossible to look at Hendry’s maps and agree, at least for Wales.  The Welsh network is dominated by east-west links into England – only the Heart of Wales line runs between south-west and mid-Wales.

As well as the ‘Boris Bridge’, the Review signals a retreat from Johnson’s proposal to implement the M4’s Brynglas by-pass directly from London. With Westminster backing, the UK Prime Minister certainly has the formal power take on the project directly from London. Doing so would, however, upend the current structure of devolution – with dramatic general ramifications for the UK territorial constitution. Though for technical-infrastructural rather than political reasons, Hendry has walked Johnson away from this confrontation. He backed plans for a multi-model approach to congestion in south Wales, as developed by the Welsh Government’s Burns Commission.

Since London remains responsible for it, the shabby state of network infrastructure in Wales is not a product of devolution. Newport East MP Jessica Morden asked the Prime Minister why Wales has received 2% of UK rail enhancement funding, while having 11% of its track. According to the Wales Fiscal Analysis team the country has missed out on £500 million worth of investment.

The funding squeeze on Wales will get tighter. While Scotland or Northern Ireland will get close to their population share of spending for HS2, now estimated at £96 billion. Since the Treasury has designed it as an England and Wales project, no extra funding will flow west of Offa’s Dyke. While HS2 may have indirect benefits for north Wales, it is likely to divert productive activity away from south Wales.

Revealing one consequence of past underinvestment in Wales, the Union Connectivity Review notes Cardiff is ‘currently the UK’s least well directly connected major city’.  Cardiff’s poor connections reflect the way Britain’s network is structured around connections to London. The Review makes a significant proposal that cuts against the London-centric grain – improving Cardiff’s connections to Birmingham and beyond. Had the eastern limb of HS2 been retained, improving this line might have proven even more beneficial for the Welsh Capital, by enhancing rail links to northern England and Scotland.

Equally, for Hendry, connectivity from London to Wales seems to stop at Cardiff. West and north of its Capital, nowhere in Wales is well connected to London. As trains leave England, their average speed drops. Initial plans to electrify the London line all the way to Swansea were ditched; the Review makes no proposal to reconsider that decision.

The Review looks to strengthen connections to England for Wales’ existing economic centres. They are concentrated close to the border, in Wales’ northeast and southeast corners. This Union Connectivity perspective does little to tackle places where Wales’ most severe disadvantage is found. Levelling up and building back better seem to stop just west of the border; the Report says nothing about these objectives across the rest of Wales. Creating a rail link from, say, Swansea to Aberystwyth might help to rebalance economic activity across Wales – and perhaps to reduce the country’s net fiscal deficit in the longer term.

Reflecting his remit, Hendry’s Review usually privileges cross-border connections within the UK. As for lines within Wales, since they do little to strengthen cross-border connections, railways in the southwest of England or from Birmingham to Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds receive lower priority.

Inconsistencies in the Connectivity Review...and Unionism

The Report, however, does not follow its unionist logic consistently. As well as its poor connection to London, Swansea has no direct rail link to Bristol, surely a matter of Union Connectivity. Equally, the report backs a ‘Fast Growth Knowledge Corridor’ entirely within England. Though it cuts across the London-centric rail structure of England’s southeast, that line looks rather like a border between its fastest growing corner and the rest of the UK.

‘While not of strategic importance for cross-border connectivity’ the Analytical Report says the ‘Fast Growth Knowledge Corridor’ ‘is recognised as an increasingly important strategic corridor for the UK’. Compelling though its economic rationale may be, treating this Corridor across the southeast as an exceptional strategic priority, while leaving a large city like Swansea out in the cold is as hard to reconcile with the logic of levelling-up as that of Union Connectivity.

With existing plans set to compound historic underinvestment, it is easy to see why Boris Johnson’s infrastructure investments plans have received a hostile reception in Wales.  The practical realism of Hendry’s Review put an end to the Prime Minister most extravagant peacock display of ‘muscular unionism’. Though the Union Connectivity Review has walked Boris Johnson away from some of his more bombastically abrasive suggestions, its general treatment of Wales is, at best, mixed. Ultimately, it illustrates a more general problem. Its own centre often has an impoverished vision of the Union, viewed through Home Counties goggles, which connects poorly with the rest of the UK.

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Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash.

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