Yorkshire’s largest council will use the Government’s drive for decentralisation to wrest control of the North’s key rail network away from Whitehall and deliver new jobs and improved passenger services for the region.
In an unprecedented collaboration, leaders from Leeds City Council have held a series of meetings with their local authority counterparts in Manchester over a joint bid to take control of the trans-Pennine rail route, which connects the two cities.
Council chiefs believe that by taking control of the network from the Department of Transport (DfT), they can ensure “local people” benefit from the huge investment in the line when it is electrified over the coming years, and negotiate a much-improved deal with train operators when the existing contract expires in 2014.
“This is a significant breakthrough in terms of cities working together,” Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds City Council, said.
“It’s been very positive from the Manchester side – we’ve had meetings here with their chief executive and the leader. I think this can unlock the potential of billions of pounds, thousands of jobs.
“All the city region leaders are up for this – we met last week and they are very enthusiastic.”
The move is the first tangible outcome of the Government’s move to give cities the chance to bid for new powers over budgets and unprecedented control over areas such as transport, housing and business rates.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched his Cities Agenda at the IPPR North conference in Leeds yesterday, promising a “bonfire of Whitehall controls” as power is handed back to core cities including Leeds and Sheffield.
Individual deals for each city will be agreed over the coming months, and Mr Clegg said he wants to see collaboration between cities in their bids.
Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council, said he is most interested in developing skills and infrastructure and that working with his counterparts across the Pennines could drive forward growth across the North. “There’s a strong desire for collaboration on transport between Leeds and Manchester,” he said.
“I think we could play a role in taking on the decision-making role around the trans-Pennine contract, the procurement and all the rest. We can do this faster; better; cheaper (than the DfT).”
It is understood that Metro, the public transport organisation for West Yorkshire, has been talking to the Greater Manchester Transport Executive about the project for several months; the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chambers of Commerce has also been in talks with counterparts in Greater Manchester.
The councils believe they can tailor the new trans-Pennine contract to meet the needs of the two cities, introducing much-needed extra capacity along the line.
Ed Cox, director of IPPR North, highlighted a study which suggested connections between Manchester and Leeds are 40 per cent fewer than would be expected in similar cities elsewhere.
“The only way northern cities will compete in the global economy is through collective endeavour,” he said. “Leeds’s success depends on Manchester, and vice-versa.”
Mr Riordan said infrastructure investment – such as the electrification of the line – could be better targeted to help local people.
“Shrinking the distance between Leeds and Manchester will make a big difference to productivity,” he said. “And we would parallel-track the work on local jobs, so local people were getting the benefit of the investment.”