Tom Richmond: The Trolleybus scandal. Leeds humiliated by breakdown of transport leadership

AND still there is no public apology to taxpayers. Five days after the transport strategy for Leeds hit the buffers, 'sorry' still appears the hardest word of all to say.

Leaders at Leeds Council were not qualified to develop trolleybus proposals.
Leaders at Leeds Council were not qualified to develop trolleybus proposals.

Indeed this lack of contrition, after a Government planning inspector rejected the city’s ill-conceived £250m trolleybus plan, is precisely the type of dismissive behaviour which brings politics – and public life – into disrepute. Is no one going to accept responsibility?

Already £72m of taxpayers’ money has gone to waste on legal costs in a congested city no nearer to developing a light rail system than it was three decades ago. And some of the key figures are the same individuals driving transport policy for the wider region.

There’s Keith Wakefield, the longstanding leader of Leeds Council until he stepped down in May 2015. The Labour veteran now heads transport on the Combined Authority and says trolleybus was pursued “in line with government advice”.

There’s Tom Riordan who headed the profligate Yorkshire Forward regional development agency before becoming council chief executive in 2010.

There’s Trolleybus champion James Lewis who headed Metro, the area’s passenger transport body, before it was replaced by West Yorkshire Combined Authority. The Labour councillor is deputy leader of Leeds Council.

And then there’s Martin Farrington, the director of city development in Leeds since 2010 and project leader. Under cross-examination, he conceded that he was “not an expert” in “transport planning”.

It’s summed up by the closing legal submission of bus firm First West Yorkshire Limited: “Despite claiming that there was a need for a rapid transport system, Mr Farrington was not aware of the average speed of the proposed trolleybuses...

“When asked what proportion of passengers using the trolleybus would come from using the car, he candidly said that he was not in a position to answer and had ‘no idea’.”

Believe it or not, these are the people running Leeds. Yet, rather than apologies, there have just been weasel words from Judith Blake – the current leader of Leeds Council who assumed her role in May last year long after the inquiry had started – blaming the then Labour government for insisting on a bus-based project when the original Supertram plan was blocked in 2005 after its costs rose from an initial £100m in the early 1990s to £1bn.

Though this scandal is Leeds-centric, it has regional ramifications. Irrespective of whether the Northern Powerhouse is a George Osborne vanity project, and regardless of Britain’s future in the EU, a prosperous Leeds is integral to Yorkshire’s future prospects.

However, if this is the calibre of local leadership, how will the region cope if the Government does devolve unprecedented policy and spending powers like those afforded to Greater Manchester? Not very well judging by the conclusions of planning inspector Martin Whitehead whose findings – endorsed by Transport Minister Lord Ahmad – are scathing after a costly 72-day inquiry and submission of 1,000 formal objections.

Here’s a summary: trolleybus would not improve links to “areas of highest unemployment”; it would not cut congestion; “more cost effective ways” to improve public transport were not considered; trolleybuses would require separate stops to conventional buses so it would be “less convenient” for passengers and bus journey times were likely to increase and the financial viability of the scheme’s business model was unproven.

As First’s lawyer Gregory Jones QC said in his closing submission: “That the officers in overall charge of the city’s planning and development were so ill-informed about the project... may help to explain why this scheme has got so far as it has.”

As a long-suffering Leeds commuter with more day-to-day experience of transport in the city than some of those in charge at Civic Hall, I couldn’t have put it better myself. What were the aforementioned quartet of Messrs Wakefield, Riordan, Lewis and Farrington doing? Congratulating themselves on a job a well done? Did no one think to stop and question the strategy – or did they assume that they could ride roughshod over public opinion and common sense? If they thought the Whitehall advice was wrong, why were Ministers not challenged? The public interest requires answers.

Of course, transport policy is complex. Regrettably, the development of new infrastructure has not kept growth with the burgeoning Leeds economy – or population growth. That makes it harder to plan new schemes without disrupting commuters, travellers and shoppers.

But if Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Nottingham can build tram networks and so on, why can’t Leeds? Before any further transport powers are devolved, leaders in Leeds and the wider region need to demonstrate that the trolleybus lessons have been learned – and they have the necessary expertise to build future projects on time and on budget.

However it won’t happen if the Leeds leadership remain in denial about the breakdown in transport policy on their watch which has left their city as the largest in Europe without a light transit rail system. If that doesn’t warrant a public apology, what will?