Transport: Raising the standard of Northern rebellion

18th December 2011  On various historical occasions rebels in the regions have raised the standard of revolt, advanced on the capital and demanded remedies for their grievances. Now although quaintly regarded here in Hebden as an ‘offcumden’ I have a shrill loyalty to my adopted region and so oscillate between weaving a sarcastic tale of shivering Northern pensioners and small children offering up their last pence so that the good folk of the metropolis should want for nothing – absolutely nothing, however gold-plated – and the more straightforward suggestion of marching southwards to put London to the sword.

Now we could wander off into the thickets and byways of ‘regional policy’ over the last five decades, or discuss the extent to which the Coalition Government’s New Localism is merely the Old Centralisation behind another mask – why else would both a Gordon Brown Labour government and its successor have moved so determinedly to stamp on the budding seeds of regional empowerment? – but let’s not digress.

Nowhere does this simmering regional resentment bubble closer to the surface than around the question of transport spending and investment. Transport cash ‘skewed’ towards London’ is the unsurprising conclusion of a new IPPR North report – now there’s a unusual situation, a think-tank with an HQ in Newcastle! – and you can see the headline figures in that BBC article for the yawning gulf between London/SE and all other areas; or read the detailed research here.

The IPPR figures differ from those of the Transport Select Committee in Transport & the Economy Feb 2011 (see table 2 on p.25pdf, and paras.49-51), and there’s a different compilation and (im)balance in PTEG’s Funding Gap report Nov 2011– note in figure 8 how the major gap in transport funding isn’t replicated for health and education – but the huge disparity between North and South always remains.

For more PTEG facts and arguments look at their Transport Works website, report, factsheet, detailed evidence base, and funding gap analysis.  In July last year PTEG were already warning that “without sustained effort, it is highly likely that these geographical disparities will remain, made worse by the overall budgetary squeeze.”

What is more these comparisons only look at the recent past, whereas the inequality in subsidy and investment has been building up for decades. Consequently in London a high density of public transport networks is maintained and thickened, and all sorts of network benefits obtained. Which is why bus passenger journeys in London are now 50% higher than they were in 1970, whereas in the English Met areas they’ve plummeted by two thirds.

But the interesting question is why does nobody do anything about this situation, and nobody really complain? That is, ‘marching on London’ complain. The only voices raised insistently have been the regional newspapers: notably the Yorkshire Post with its Road to Ruin campaign, started in 2005, active in the years since, and still shouting loudly earlier this yearNorth on wrong side of tracks as South cashes in on funding is their comment on the IPPR report.

The High Speed Rail ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ HS2 altercation of recent months has seen the Northern flag hesitantly and briefly unfurled; here’s the YP again: London Tube ‘blackmail’ angers Northern high-speed rail lobby. The regional Yes to High Speed Rail campaign also deployed the investment gap argument (and read more of their general case here). Voices raised against the cost of HS2 – which would provide investment ‘North of Watford’ – had been silent when the Crossrail and Thameslink projects, amounting to in excess of £20 billion between them, were proposed. Oh, and let’s not forget Crossrail 2, for which the lobby and planning have already begun; and Crossrail 3 – of course. Then there’s Transport for London’s ‘generous budget’, to quote previous SoS Transport Andrew Adonis, which ‘escaped major cuts’ in the last year’s Spending Review. And now see the addendum to this post!

There’s some momentum building for the more general devolution of responsibilities. But crucially, without a parallel devolution of taxation and fundraising powers – in addition to a more equalised distribution of national expenditure – the regions would just be left struggling with problems they have no resources to tackle. Yes, there are proposals for business rate retention (criticised here) and for Tax Increment Financing (here’s the Core Cities guidance) but we will have to wait to see whether these act anywhere but at the margin. (Again IPPR North are leading a reassessment of this bigger isuue, with their Northern Economic Futures Commission, to which Friends of the Earth made a submission). Maybe these innovations might make the North v South gap wider? – which is what happened during the boom years.

So, who’s been persistently silent in this phoney-war for transport cash? Answer: it’s got to be the spineless and disorganised Northern MPs who, because they spend their political lives down in London – dancing attendance on the court at Whitehall – must have effectively been co-opted and bought off! To start banging the political table quite aggressively for their regions would simply be .. impolite. Their consistent lack of interest in this issue, their indifference to the disparity in the quality of infrastructure and services between North and South, their neglect of the interests of their constituencies, is just unacceptable, but also an enduring political fixture. Even when they had a Labour Government with a northern powerbase – and, coming uptodate, almost half of Ed Milliband’s original Shadow Cabinet were Yorkshire MPs; now they’re only a quarter – they still didn’t do anything.

A few months ago and quite late at night I set out on one of my periodic trips to London, racketing about in a 25 years old diesel Pacer trains, to get from Hebden Bridge to Leeds; a service which after 8 o’clock is basically 1 per hour and ceases from the Leeds direction at 10.30pm.  On this occasion when I arrived in Kings Cross I wandered up to St Pancras and watched with astonishment and just a little irritation as the brand new High Speed Javelin service whizzed late night revellers homewards to the south coast. Running at 15 minute intervals. From 6.30am till past midnight. To Chatham, Faversham, and Ramsgate!

So – having doffed our cap to Dickens’ boyhood town – we can rightly observe that this is indeed a tale of two cities. To London (and Chatham): everything.

To Leeds: nothing. No metro.  No tram system.  Not even a trolley bus.

#          #          #           #          #          #          #          #           #

Addendum 21st Jan 2012: Whilst doing some research amidst the post HS2 announcement furore, I discover in the National Infrastructure Plan Nov 2011 that the quantity of capital investment now taking place in and around London is greater still. To £14.5 billion for Crossrail (page 51pdf) and £6 billion for Thameslink (p.53) spread over a decade, we now add a figure for TFL infrastructure investment, which is £10.8 billion over four years (p.54). In total therefore that’s £31.3 billion for London in a decade, so that’s virtually the same amount as HS2 but being spent in half the time. Outrageous!