A RADICAL improvement of our transport network is one of the most pressing issues facing our region.
While I was out in my constituency this week campaigning ahead of the local elections, the problems with our transport system frequently came up on the doorstep.
There is already an ambitious blueprint on the table in the form of Transport for the North’s strategic plan. It would pave the way for £100bn of economic growth and hundreds of thousands of new jobs by 2050.
The proposals would see dramatic improvements to our road and rail network, transforming connections for people and businesses.
It is now well over a year since the consultation period on the plan to reverse years of under-investment closed.
However, we have yet to see any firm commitment from the Prime Minister or her Transport Secretary to the plan from Transport for the North which is a partnership of 20 local transport authorities, business leaders, Highways England, Network Rail, and HS2 Ltd.
Only this week, Theresa May was asked by one of her own MPs at Prime Minister’s Question Time if the Government would support the plan. Her response was merely to talk about “the importance” of Transport for the North. Significantly, she stopped short of offering her support for the blueprint.
Yet again, the PM is treating people in the North as second-class citizens when it comes to the transport system which has such a crucial impact on people’s daily lives.
As the think-tank IPPR North revealed last year, there is a huge imbalance between transport spending in the North and the South. In the year to April 2017, transport spending in London increased by 11.4 per cent, but fell by 3.6 per cent in the North.
The gulf meant the North received £289 per head to spend on transport, while London received £708 per head on average over the past decade. That injustice has to end.
Meanwhile, Chris Grayling – the PM’s Transport Secretary – has wasted even more money with his latest blunder, frittering away an estimated £83m after scrapping no-deal Brexit ferry services.
He failed to get a grip over the disastrous introduction last year of a new rail timetable, yet – to the amazement of even his Conservative colleagues – he continues to cling on to his job.
Stuck with a weak Prime Minister who is on borrowed time in Downing Street and a useless Transport Secretary, it is proving a big challenge when it comes to driving forward the radical improvements that the region’s transport network desperately needs.
But that does not mean we should just give up. In my constituency of Leeds West, I have successfully fought for improvements at Headingley Station and a doubling of the number of trains stopping at Kirkstall Forge.
I am also pushing for improvements at other local stations like Bramley and Burley Park, as well as talking to transport companies about putting on more bus services.
Nationally, we have promised a future Labour government would spend £1.3bn a year to reverse cuts to around 3,000 bus routes and fund new services – something that would make a massive difference to the whole region, especially rural areas.
At present, too many bus services in Leeds and across Yorkshire are infrequent, unreliable and cancelled at short notice. Some services are overcrowded, while others under-used because of poor timetabling.
In London, travellers on buses, trains and the Tube enjoy an easier journey due to the ability to pay by contactless cards. The same benefits should be rolled out across the North too.
A key factor in the future prosperity of our region will be the efficiency of our transport system. Without a reliable, affordable, congestion-free network, it will be hard to attract investment and the jobs we need to rebalance the UK’s economy and close the North-South divide.
If the Government is ever to live up to its rhetoric about a Northern Powerhouse, we need to see real investment in our transport system and support for an integrated transport plan for the North – which should include the HS2 rail link.
Our road, rail and bus network have suffered from almost a decade of woeful under-funding. Decisions about transport should be switched from Whitehall to transport leaders locally who know what our priorities are.
However, it is not just about devolving power. We need far more investment and recognition from Government ministers in London about the transport needs of the rest of the country.
Transport for the North estimated that – with the right level of funding – the region’s economy could benefit from up to 850,000 new jobs.
Only a short-sighted Government like this one, with its narrow focus on London and the South-East, could fail to see the undeniable benefits of spending to improve our transport network. The North should get the same levels of transport funding as London and the South-East. It’s time the Government stopped being a roadblock to creating jobs and prosperity across our region.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West. She chairs Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.