LET'S talk about the elephant in the room - a white elephant at that. I am talking, of course, about HS2.
I have heard a few grumblings about the scrapping of the 'northern' leg between Manchester and Birmingham - as if this welcome move by the Government is somehow a bad thing. It is a moot point whether Manchester qualifies as 'north' or simply as the 'north Midlands'...certainly, HS2 did nothing to combat the die-hard perception that the "North West" starts at Manchester and ends at Liverpool.
Truth be told, HS2 would have done little or nothing to directly benefit Cumbria, or County Durham, Northumberland, Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear or Lancashire. It wouldn't have helped my constituents get to work on time, or made it any easier for them to make hospital appointments. Yet some are claiming this latest move is evidence that the north has again been forgotten, sold short - that "levelling up" was just an empty soundbite.
By some estimates, the average costs of HS2 alone to Cumbrian residents alone would have been £1.5bn - a lot of money for a train link that ends 140 miles south of Workington and reduces train services from Penrith and Oxenholme.
We have had a lucky escape. But even more importantly, this announcement means the spiralling costs of HS2 can be spent where they are needed most - in a way that directly helps Cumbria and delivers value for money for taxpayers. The recent Network North announcement is huge for this constituency, for Cumbria, and for the North. This £36billion package of transport upgrades across the North is proof that the Prime Minister is listening.
It will see billions of pounds redirected to build the daily connections that people rely on. The plans include a pledge to upgrade the Energy Coast Line, more popularly known as the Cumbrian Coast Line, for the benefit of passengers and the wider economy.
The Government's blueprint specifically mentions improvements to the rail between Barrow, Workington and Carlisle - something I have been fighting for since I was deputy leader of Allerdale Council.
This investment will enable a half-hourly service between Carlisle, Workington and Whitehaven. It will also accommodate major new freight demands from the new coal mine. Overall, the package supports over 18,000 jobs. We are talking about an investment probably in the region of hundreds of millions of pounds for this area alone.
How did this all come about? When I was deputy leader of Allerdale under a Conservative administration, Boris Johnson gave us £8m to build a business case for upgrades to the Energy Coast Line. Stakeholders including local councillors and Cumbria LEP built a first class bid, and I have been working with colleagues to get it over the line.
In an early meeting, just after my election, as I asked Boris to stop the spiralling spend on HS2, I said to him that taking five minutes off a journey to Carlisle would give us much more than 15 minutes off a trip to London. The game changing investment delivered through Network North will achieve even more. It is a direct result of that big submitted to the Department for Transport - and of my subsequent campaigning as your MP.
The HS2 project was a barrier to us spending on the forms of transport that matter to most people. Every penny from the northern leg of HS2 will go to the North. Rather than just connecting Birmingham and Manchester, this will help hundreds of projects in towns, cities and in rural areas.
Cumberland's Labour "executive member for sustainable, resilient and connected places" (council-ese for "transport") was quoted in the press on HS2, describing it as a "missed opportunity". The Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who stood to lose rail services, was also critical of the Government decision.
Ask yourselves why these politicians are keen to prioritise people getting from Manchester to London at the cost of reduced services to Penrith and Oxenholme. Why is HS2 more important to Labour-led Cumberland Council than helping local people?
So far, we have seen from Cumberland #binchaos, the scrapping of the pool for Maryport, a huge council tax hike in the midst of a cost of living crisis, a £28m overspend in the first six months, and our streets choked with weeds. Buildings lie empty while people work from home, with no plan to make them work for taxpayers.
They care more about helping people get from Manchester than they do about the people they were elected to serve. In contrast, I never stop standing up for Cumbria.
Northerners should be celebrating the announcement that this particular elephant has packed its trunk and said "goodbye" to the circus."