Greg Mulholland: Leeds’ transport vision is on the wrong track

MP Greg Mulholland says the Leeds trolleybus money should still be spent on light rail. Do you agree?
MP Greg Mulholland says the Leeds trolleybus money should still be spent on light rail. Do you agree?
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AFTER years of waiting, Leeds – one of the biggest, proudest and most important ‘core cities’ in the country – finally has the opportunity to invest in the start of the light rail network it so desperately needs. Yet Leeds City Council is about to squander this opportunity and waste this one-off chance to launch a mass transit system and begin to catch up with rival cities such as Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham.

Instead, Leeds City Council will bid for a series of so called “smaller improvements” claiming that these can somehow deliver the kind of strategic change and extra capacity that Leeds desperately needs. Notably and conveniently, they have also forgotten about the £81m that they and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority allocated to the NGT scheme before the trolleybus plan was blocked. Now council leaders think they can use the central Government funding not as a strategic investment, but rather as a handy windfall, a slush fund they can use to spend on piecemeal road, bus and rail improvements.

It was a breath of fresh air when the Government announced, following the scrapping of NGT six months ago, that Leeds would be allowed to keep the £173.5m allocated to the scheme. The comments from council leaders then was extraordinary sour grapes, seeking to attack central Government when, for once in this very long saga, Government (and not mine) had made an excellent decision in allowing Leeds to keep and spend the money on the right system.

The only reason a trolleybus scheme was ever proposed was because Alistair Darling, when Transport Secretary, disgracefully decreed that Leeds could only bid for a bus-based system, having cancelled the Supertram scheme.

Instead of grasping this opportunity, Leeds City Council has shown a profound lack of leadership and is in danger of wasting this one-off opportunity. After the announcement of the decision, I called for a transport summit of Leeds MPs and council and business leaders to discuss such how best to spend the money, but instead the council decided to spend yet more taxpayers’ money and launch a trendily entitled ‘transport conversation’.

In addition, far from being some cosy open-ended consultation, this so-called (and hugely expensive) ‘conversation’ has deliberately omitted consideration of light rail with leading questions and ‘options’ that don’t allow local people to back what we need. So Leeds taxpayers, who are paying for this exercise, are being denied the chance to back what we need.

Extraordinarily, the person in charge of transport in Leeds, Councillor Richard Lewis, claimed: “We don’t actually have a transport problem. Traffic moves relatively easy along Leeds at peak times.” Not surprisingly, people in Leeds who are well used to traffic that crawls along at peak times are astonished at these comments.

The excuses given for not planning to pursue the £250m on getting started with light rail is that it is not sufficient money – or that it will take too long. What nonsense. Light rail systems in other cities have begun with one initial line or section that can then be expanded in the future. This is the only way that Leeds will develop the kind of network now seen in Manchester or Sheffield. If we had done as I had suggested, and all agreed where this could be, probably on an existing railway line, we could be bidding for this now.

At the same time, Leeds City Council seems intent on pushing forward with a costly and environmentally damaging link road to the airport, costing up to £75m. So we actually have the potential to spend more than £300m which very clearly is enough to get started with light rail. Add to that the reality that private investment has already been offered to boost this sum, then you can see the truth here – that Leeds City Council leaders are not consulting to get the answer they want, but to spend this money on small- scale improvements they themselves, should be funding and which will not transform transport.

Only in May, following the announcement that NGT would not be going ahead, the leader of Leeds City Council, Coun Judith Blake, said: “It is deeply frustrating and regrettable that Leeds will remain the largest city in Western Europe without a rapid transit system. The people of the city deserve better.”

I couldn’t agree more, yet her council is going to squander the millions given to instead Leeds on smaller improvement and not on planning for the mass transit scheme that the city needs. In doing so, the authority is condemning Leeds to a future of falling further behind on transport compared to other major cities and to ensure Leeds will long remain Europe’s biggest city without light rail. They have decided Leeds should settle for second best. I won’t settle for that and I urge people in Leeds to join me in saying so before this huge opportunity is lost.

• Greg Mulholland is the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West.