The Government’s intention to tackle the North-South divide is being undermined by the flawed methods it use to decide which schemes to fund, a critical report by MPs has claimed today.
The Transport Committee says current appraisal methods will always favour London over northern regions as they are weighted heavily towards the reduction of congestion and journey time savings, meaning less successful areas will continue to be held back.
And though Whitehall has produced new guidance for officials which acknowledges the need for change, the report by MPs says they are “not convinced” the ‘re-balancing toolkit’ will make a material difference unless it becomes mandatory.
The report on rail infrastructure, which shows London’s railways getting six times as much funding per head as Yorkshire’s between 2012 and 2017, calls for the Government to do more to help regions “short-changed on rail spending”.
In response, the Department for Transport said it was spending more in the North than the South in the coming years, citing the £3bn cost of upgrading the trans-Pennine route between York, Leeds and Manchester.
While we accept that annual snapshots of comparative regional investment can be problematic, and that investment in one area can lead to benefits in another, some regions have faced decades of under-investment in their parts of the rail network.Lilian Greenwood
But a Yorkshire council leader said the report “should be the final word in the debate over transport investment with its clear finding that there is a funding gap between London and economically disadvantaged regions which will worsen if not addressed”.
It was prompted by the department’s announcement last summer that promised electrification schemes on the Midland Mainline between Kettering and Sheffield, as well as two other schemes in the Lake District and Wales, were to be cancelled.
MPs criticised the “less than candid approach” taken by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, who claimed it was due to the emergence of bi-modal technology but did not mention that parts of the Government’s planned electrification had been scrapped for cost reasons.
Committee chairwoman Lilian Greenwood said: “The Government should have been more honest with Parliament and the public about the real reason for the decision. An announcement made by Written Statement on the last day before summer recess offered limited opportunity for debate and scrutiny.”
Adding that the benefits of the Government’s bi-mode approach, where trains can run on diesel or electric power, were uncertain and “seemed to ignore the environmental costs”, MPs urged Ministers to do more to support the development of new technologies.
And they recommended the cancelled electrification schemes be re-categorised as ‘pending’, meaning they could be re-instated, and considered for further development and design work.
The report is the latest criticism of the disparities between transport spending in London and the North, as northern train passengers continue to suffer disruption due to the recent timetable chaos.
It highlighted the fact that the Treasury’s own figures showed that between 2012/13 and 2016/17, London received £773 per head for its railways while Yorkshire received just £137 per head, below the national average of £249.
It said the current appraisal methods, which focus on savings on journey times, will always favour London, and that it should “instead weight heavily the regeneration impacts of investment in transport in regions with spare economic capacity”.
It said: “Evidence from regional transport bodies was clear: decision-making processes and systems of scheme appraisal currently work against regions outside London, and they do not believe they are getting their fair share.”
Ms Greenwood said: “The Secretary of State’s cancellation of three rail electrification schemes in the Midlands, south Wales and Lake District only to be followed four days later by the announcement in principle to fund Crossrail 2 in London unsurprisingly re-ignited the debate about disparities in rail infrastructure investment between London and other regions.
“The Treasury’s own data shows that spending per head in London in 2016/17 was more than ten times that of the East Midlands. Regional economies will never be able to catch up with London while such inequalities exist.
“While we accept that annual snapshots of comparative regional investment can be problematic, and that investment in one area can lead to benefits in another, some regions have faced decades of under-investment in their parts of the rail network.
“They deserve to have a clear sense of what the Government is doing to help them attract transport investment and grow economically. The Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine will struggle to live up to their names without tangible change.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “As this report makes clear, this government is investing significant extra resources as the railway undergoes its biggest modernisation since Victorian times - making sure people are better connected and their journeys are quicker, more convenient and more comfortable.
“A better, quicker, more efficient transport network increases productivity and makes it easier to do business as we continue to rebalance the UK economy.
“The next few years will actually see higher government spending in the North, compared to the south, and by 2020 all Northern and TransPennine trains will be new or refurbished, with an extra 500 carriages providing space for 40,000 extra passengers and 2,000 extra services each week.
“A third of all enhancement spending over the next five-year investment period - £3 billion - will be used to upgrade the route between Leeds, Manchester and York. We will also see the roll out of the new inter-city express trains serving the east, north east and south west.”
Judith Blake, Leader of Leeds City Council and member of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said: “Today’s report should be the final word in the debate over transport investment with its clear finding that there is a funding gap between London and economically disadvantaged regions which will worsen if not addressed.
“Decades of underinvestment has left the North of England without the modern, reliable transport network which is needed if we are to achieve our economic ambitions and raise living standards for all our communities.
“The disruption currently faced by rail passengers in the North is in part a consequence of this failure to invest and we must find a resolution urgently.
“Upgrading the trans-Pennine rail route, as well as bringing forward HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, connecting Manchester to Leeds and York via Bradford, must be considered urgent national priorities.”