Now that the Department for Transport has revealed the shortlist of predominantly foreign-owned firms bidding to run the new Northern and TransPrennine Express rail franchises, the needs of the travelling public must take precedence.
The reason is this. If Ministers are to create “a world class” railway for the North, the laudable ambition of George Osborne, the onus needs to be placed on the successful bidders to provide a service that is ‘fit for purpose’.
In short, it will be a dereliction of duty on the part of Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, if he allows the status quo to persist. There needs to be incentives in place at the start of this process to reduce overcrowding and replace outdated rolling stock.
In many respects, it is regrettable that the respective bids cannot be published on grounds of commercial confidentiality – most of the shortlisted firms are foreign-owned and they will be expecting to receive generous subsidies in return for the privilege of running Yorkshire’s rail services. They need to be reminded of their public service obligations, and that this region’s train services do not compare favourably to Europe because of decades of under-investment. Profits need to be invested in service improvements rather than the pockets of shareholders.
Greater transparency would also give commuters, the most important people of all, the chance to scrutinise the robustness of the respective plans after yesterday’s inflation figures paved the way for fares to increase by an average of 3.5 per cent from January onwards. The consequence will be commuters having to pay more to stand on overcrowded trains unless Ministers take this opportunity to stop the exploitation of passengers by operators whose motives are different to those of the people that they purport to serve. In this regard, the timing could not be better.
CONTROVERSIAL though it may be, the principle behind the Government’s removal of the spare room subsidy was a sound one. Faced with an ever spiralling benefit bill for those in private rented accommodation, the so-called bedroom tax was designed to save money and free up under-occupied social housing.
The problem is that a lack of availability means finding a smaller home in the social sector is not easy so most of those affected have simply had to find more money to stay in situ, leading to accusations that the policy is heaping more hardship on the most vulnerable.
As a result, while the measure saves the Exchequer £480m a year, it is not having the desired effect in terms of freeing up homes and will slow rather than make significant inroads into a rising housing benefit bill which topped £1.3bn in Yorkshire last year.
At its root, this complex issue boils down to one simple fact: property prices in many areas are now out of the financial reach of far too many people. So far, the Government’s response has been to lend them financial assistance to bridge the gap through schemes such as Help to Buy. This, however, has merely served to stoke the market still further and funnel yet more public revenue into the pockets of landlords.
York Council leader James Alexander’s call for rent caps set at a regional level based on average wages and housing costs, with the savings to be spent on house-building, offers one possible solution.
The question is whether a Government that has shown all the signs of building a recovery around a renascent housing market is willing to take that step.