EVEN though he won’t accept this criticism, Chris Grayling did take Yorkshire for a ride when he raised false hopes about rail electrification plans before the election.
Now the Transport Secretary, I suspect, is putting the proverbial cart before the horse with a cack-handed attempt to turbo-charge the region’s railways.
It will do nothing of the sort. Unless the Government reappraises Transport for the North’s remit prior to this month’s Budget, it will become the ultimate slow train to nowhere.
What makes me say this? On my desk are 10 pages of “draft statutory instruments” – archaic Parliamentary regulations drawn up by the Department of Transport after Mr Grayling told the region to sort out its own difficulties.
No wonder little seems to get done. Given TfN has been compared to Transport for London where the capital’s directly-elected mayor controls the train set, voters were led to believe that this would involve significant powers – and funding.
Not a bit of it. Just five short clauses refer to TfN’s proposed functions – a remarkable lack of clarity when its purpose is to reverse decades of under-investment in road and rail.
Contrast this with two and half pages of Parliamentary jargon on how the Department for Transport, headed by Mr Grayling, intends this quango to function.
It will have representatives from 19 local and combined authorities whose votes will be weighted in line with the size of the population that they represent.
Fine. Likewise the instruction that TfN members must meet at least four times a year. No problem there, though dynamic organisations should not be afraid of more frequent meetings – and in public.
Yet then it gets convoluted. It is proposed to establish a “partnership board” that will “advise TfN on matters relating to transport to, from or within the area of TfN”. Isn’t this what the quango’s senior (and well-remunerated) executives should be doing?
And then there’s a raft of instructions on the need for a “scrutiny committee” to oversee the work of Transport for the North. This latter committee would be fine – and a necessary safeguard – if TfN was pressing full steam ahead with transforming the trans-Pennine route into a high-speed line now.
Even though councils can nominate representatives, it is another tier of bureaucracy and, quite possibly, another wheeze to derail progress because promises to provide the necessary funding are just that – false promises.
This is made patently clear by TfN’s five “general functions”. Top of the leaked regulations is “to prepare a transport strategy”. Reference is also made to a co-ordination role. No problem.
Yet it is clause two which is the most telling, namely “to provide advice to the Secretary of State about the exercise of transport functions in relation to its area”.
This matters. Even though devolution is about empowering the regions, and even though Mr Grayling was a Brexiteer who campaigned to “take back control” from the EU, the critical word is “advice”.
In short, it gives Mr Grayling the right of veto with the buck still stopping with the Transport Secretary who ordered the North “to take control” in an article for this paper in August.
Now all hope is not lost – yet. Former Treasury minister Jim O’Neill, the architect of the Northern Powerhouse, says, from experience, there’s scope to beef up the remit.
There’s a possibility, he said, that neither the Department for Transport, nor 10 Downing Street, appreciated the significance of the omissions until these “draft regulations” were leaked.
As I, and others, have long suspected, it is clear that the Department for Transport, HM Treasury and 10 Downing Street do not pull in the same direction (unless, of course, they’re responding to London’s endless demands that now include Crossrail 2).
This was patently clear after Theresa May’s disgraced ex-aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill rubbished the Northern Powerhouse simply because it was not their idea in the first place. How petty.
Yet, while Mrs May told last month’s Tory conference (in Manchester) that she was committed to the Northern Powerhouse, and that Lord O’Neill’s former boss George Osborne was, in fact, right to make this a political priority, Tory promises are breaking down as frequently as the more antiquated trains that are still in service in Yorkshire.
For, while this Government is spending far more on transport than previous administrations, the u-turns means the trust of commuters and taxpayers is close to being lost forever.
That’s why the Prime Minister must ensure Transport for the North is given full powers, and funding, in the Budget on November 22 so it can start to create a rail and road network to match this region’s needs and ambitions. Indeed, on a recent visit to The Yorkshire Post, Chancellor Philip Hammond – a one-time Transport Secretary – was taken aback that this was not already the case.
If Theresa May does not take control, she – and Chris Grayling – deserve to be first in the queue for one-way tickets on a hand cart to political oblivion.
After all, Mrs May’s Maidenhead constituency will benefit from Crossrail 1 while London’s new North-South line will serve Mr Grayling’s Epsom constituents. If it’s good enough for them, a state-of-the-art railway from Hull to Liverpool – the top priority of business – should be good enough for Yorkshire and the North.