SYSTEMIC failures of management at crisis-hit Network Rail - the official reason cited for a number of high-profile rail improvement schemes in this region being abruptly delayed - will not appease all those who believe that the Government has betrayed Yorkshire within weeks of being returned to power.
Even though Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has an obligation to ensure that the cost of plans to electrify the TransPennine Express and Midland Mainline do no spiral out of control, this postponement is at odds with the pre-election rhetoric of a succession Ministers – David Cameron and George Osborne included – who repeatedly stressed that such engineering schemes were critical to improving reliability and boosting passenger capacity.
After all, the original announcement to electrify the Sheffield to London route actually preceded the landmark Autumn Statement of November 29, 2011, when the Chancellor announced the upgrade of the railway between Leeds and Manchester after the Government negotiated £20bn of investment from British pension funds to help finance the overhaul of the country’s creaking road and rail infrastructure.
Given this political backdrop, and the anger of those passengers who believe that they have been taken for a ride, Mr McLoughlin is duty-bound to address these five points.
1. In light of the repeated and well-informed speculation about this delay, when was the Minister first informed that the electrification schemes would have to be halted? Was this before or after the election?
2. Why has the Minister not had adequate oversight of Network Rail following the shambles last Christmas when engineering work over-ran and caused chaos for passengers?
3. What is the new timetable for the TransPennine Express and Midland Mainline electrification? What will be the knock-on effect for smaller schemes like the Leeds to Harrogate line?
4. How does the Minister respond to accusations from the TaxPayers’ Alliance that his transport budget is being ‘cannibalised’ to pay for HS2?
5. Finally, how can taxpayers have any confidence in the Government’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ devolution agenda when rail investment is said to be critical to attracting private sector investment and jobs?
These matters go to the heart of the Government’s policy agenda - and whether its commitment to the North is for real or not. While many will back the decision to compel Network Rail’s directors to forego their bonuses, and for London’s widely-respected transport commissioner Sir Peter Hendy to take overall charge of this troubled organisation, Mr McLoughlin must accept that it is Yorkshire commuters who are paying the heaviest price for this policy shambles – and that they have a right to a full explanation. Nothing less will suffice if the Government’s commitment to “overhaul the physical infrastructure of our nation” - the words that the Chancellor used nearly four years ago to launch this electrification revolution – is to remain on track.
Paying for a population of 64.6m
IN A week dominated by harrowing pictures of stowaways risking their lives at the crisis-hit Calais ferry terminal by clinging to the exterior of UK-bound lorries, there will be those who attribute Britain’s latest population increase to illegal immigration and a failure of political leadership on the part of David Cameron.
However, this only tells part of the story. While the number of people living on these islands rose in the past year by 491,100 – a figure which is only marginally shy of Sheffield’s total population for purposes of context – to 64.6 million, just over half of this increase is attributable to net migration. The rest is a consequence of an ageing society as people live longer thanks to advances in healthcare and diet.
Yet, on the day that the Local Government Association warned of a further £3.3bn cut to town hall finances as a result of Whitehall’s spending squeeze, it is yet another reminder that failure is not an option for Mr Cameron as he renegotiates the terms of Britain’s relationship with the European Union ahead of the 2017 referendum.
It simply is not sustainable for a city comparable in size to Sheffield to be built every year without causing lasting damage to the fabric of the country, and putting key public services under intolerable strain. The only way forward is for Britain to regain control over its borders – and for a greater share of public spending to be targeted at schools, hospitals and care services. And this will only happen with a resurgent economy – and more families being in a position to take financial responsibility for their futures. Over to you, Prime Minister.