Boost for YEP's Unlock the Gridlock campaign as Transport Secretary offers "24/7 commitment"

The Government's Transport Secretary today offered his "complete commitment" to solving Leeds' transport crisis and getting the city moving.

In a significant boost for the Yorkshire Evening Post's Unlock the Gridlock campaign, Grant Shapps gave his full support to our 'to-do' list for the new Government.

They include a pledge to look again at a mass-transit system for Leeds, a fix for the city's unreliable bus network, and improving our train services.

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In an interview at the YEP's offices Mr Shapps said he had 'complete commitment to solving it, but working in partnership to resolve it'.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was shown multiple copies of the Yorkshire Evening Post, featuring stories about the city's transport crisis.

He promised to come to Leeds after the YEP highlighted the dire state of transport to him at the end of last year.

"Yes to all of these things," he said, of the Unlock the Gridlock campaign. "I need to work with partners, I can't sit at my desk in Whitehall and sort out at the junction at the corner of wherever - that is something that we have to work together on.

"But a total 24/7 commitment to driving it through. If we don't see things moving, I'll be the one who's impatient."

Mr Shapps was visiting Leeds with Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry. Earlier in the day, Mr Shapps announced that under-fire train operator Northern could be nationalised within months.

Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps at the Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post's offices.

They both met local political leaders, including the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) to discuss transport on Thursday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made a point of stating that Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a mass-transit system.

Attempts to get one - be it a Supertram or Trolleybus - have repeatedly failed, but Mr Shapps said he was committed to looking again at the idea.

"Absolutely," he said. "It was hinted at in the manifesto.

"It is clear that you can prioritise bus lanes or new forms of green transport but without a mass transit system, I think you are unlikely to ever get to the smooth running and economic potential of Leeds, which is already enormous.

"You have got to have that transit system."

But he added that it would be 'subject to having plans that can actually work and are cost-effective - then we'd want it to happen'.

Local political leaders in Leeds have at times been sceptical of government promises, given that past schemes - and the request for a devolution deal that would make them possible - have been scrapped by Westminster previously.

Mr Berry said: "I think we can safely say the political will and the commitment is in place. In terms of the cash, you do need a plan to work to and today we have reiterated our ambition to work with them."

He added: "We recognise that when Leeds does well and the Leeds City Region does well, we all do well and that is absolutely hard-wired into Government, that pan-Northern approach to everything."

A 'One Yorkshire' devolution deal was rejected by the government at the start of 2019, but Mr Berry stressed he still wanted to see devolution at the Leeds City Region level.

Leeds and Yorkshire are widely considered to be losing out compared to other places that have regional mayors, such as in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

"We are working closely with West Yorkshire leaders," he said. "I acknowledge that it wouldn't be heir absolutely preferred solution, but there is a coalition of the willing.

"When you think of the prime capabilities of your economy here - the hi-tech manufacturing and engineering, the huge concentration you have with a quarter-of-a-million people working in the financial services industry - having that one individual mayor...that I think can be the real change in your economy and giving you control of bus franchising networks and looking at a much wider scale in terms of connectivity."

On buses, Mr Shapps said making changes were 'not entirely dependent on having a mayor'.

He said Leeds should look to apply to a £220m fund the Government had created to improve bus services nationwide.

But he also said that the Prime Minister's preference in general was for a bus network more similar to that in London, operated by a single body, with reliable, low-fare services.

"You have to have a much more strategic view of things, like Transport for London do - that's his [Boris Johnson's] vision of these things."

Cllr Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council, said: “Leeds has been short changed when it comes to funding for transport by successive Governments of all political colours, so it is encouraging the Secretary of State has committed to look to change things.

“We have already asked the Government for £20m of development funding for a mass transit system, to build on the work we are already doing such as more Park and Ride sites and improved bus corridors. As a starting point we want the Government to commit this funding in its budget in March to enable construction to start in 2023/24 on the first phase.

“We are working through Connecting Leeds to improve bus reliability by providing more bus lanes and increased priority for buses at junctions. However, we believe the Government should allow more local control of buses through re-regulation to deliver the step change in reliability bus passengers in Leeds really want to see.”

Commenting on the meeting with Mr Shapps and Mr Berry, Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, Chair of the WYCA and Leader of Bradford Council, said: “These were positive discussions where we took the opportunity to stress the importance of the Government committing to HS2 phase 2b and Northern Powerhouse Rail with a city centre station in Bradford alongside action to address the historic underinvestment in the existing rail network.

“We highlighted our ambitious plans for local transport contained in our Transforming Cities Fund bid including the need for Government’s commitment to a mass transit system for the Leeds City Region to be delivered, for which we have asked £20m to support development of our proposals.”