Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was last night accused of showing “contempt for the North” after he failed to attend a House of Commons debate calling for a more ambitious strategy for the region’s road and rail links.
The debate, organised by the Hull MP Diana Johnson, was seen as an opportunity to draw a line under a summer of negative headlines for Mr Grayling’s department following the backlash over its decision to scrap a long-overdue rail electrification scheme.
MPs from across the House lined up to condemn the historic lack of investment in Yorkshire’s infrastructure and express concern about recent revelations about the Government’s plans for Transport for the North (TfN).
They also expressed “disappointment” at the decision to send a junior minister in Mr Grayling’s place, with one senior Labour MP describing it as a sign that the Government had given up on efforts to provide leadership in the region .
“This [debate] is particularly important in the light of the reduced powers the Secretary of State has given Transport for the North while also slashing the electrification programme,” said Labour’s shadow transport minister Rachael Maskell told the Yorkshire Post.
“The Secretary of State’s contempt for the North in putting a junior Transport Minister in as his replacement demonstrates that this Government has abandoned any ambition to provide any leadership in the North.
“Only Labour’s transport plan will now deliver for the North. [We] understand that for industrial growth you need to invest in an integrated transport system, which devolves decision making under a national framework.”
Opening last night’s session, the Labour MP for Kingston Upon Hull North, Diana Johnson, also spoke of her “disappointment” at Mr Grayling’s absence.
Citing the decision to scrap the East Midlands electrification scheme and the subsequent question marks over the upgrade of the TransPennine route, she told MPs that she had pushed for a debate in the hope of securing an opportunity “to hold the Secretary of State to account for these plans”.
She went on to call for a “bolder” transport strategy for the North, setting out five commitments for ministers. This included granting TfN similar powers to Transport for London, and making a long-term commitment to re-balancing regional investment.
A number of other Yorkshire MPs - including Rishi Sunak and Judith Cummins - called on ministers to help the region unleash its economic potential through improved transport links.
Dan Jarvis and Kevin Hollinrake were keen to emphasise the need for cross-party collaboration on the issue.
Speaking on behalf of the DfT, Transport Minister Jesse Norman suggested it was unreasonable for MPs to expect TfN to receive similar powers to TfL, while questioning some of the funding figures that were being used to demonstrate regional discrepencies.
However, he stressed that the Government was committed to helping the North to “flourish” and to improving journeys for both rail and road users.
Responding to the criticisms of Mr Grayling, a DFT spokesperson said it was “nonsense” to suggest his absence was a “snub”.
They added: "We are carrying out the biggest investment in transport in the North of England for a generation, investing billions of pounds to better connect communities, build the Northern Powerhouse and deliver improved journeys for passengers."