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Why promises need to be followed by actions…

West Yorkshire mass transit plans

(This blog post is adapted from a more comprehensive analysis in the February 2020 edition of Tramways & Urban Transit)

It is unlikely that the result of the recent UK General Election will have come as a surprise to many. The 80-strong majority secured by the Conservative Party in the country’s third election in five years is clear evidence of a ‘push-back’ against years of bickering, broken promises and a willingness to break the deadlock on Brexit that has been seen as holding back decision-making and key investment the UK desperately needs.

Although it was clearly a one-issue election for many, the result stands to change far more than purely the country’s relationship with the European Union in isolation. Whether voters were EU ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’, the evidence is that both shared a common frustration at the lack of belief in the ability of bipartisan agreement for the benefit of the country. Boris Johnson and colleagues have therefore gained the largest majority in nearly 20 years. People want certainty.

Significantly, in seeking to woo voters, and particularly in the traditional Labour heartlands of the Midlands and north of England, the Tories were profuse in the weeks running up to the election to offer what people have been demanding for decades – investment. Investment in schools, investment in hospitals and the health service, and investment in transport.

Getting it done

Although the Conservatives have won the mandate in many of these communities, they still need to truly win the north, rather than just borrow it. Wafer-thin majorities in some seats mean that it will only take a small swing to change the map back again. Words are one thing… now they must deliver.

We have been promised an end to austerity and an “infrastructure revolution”, financed by an increase in public borrowing. This equates, so far, to over £100bn for new rail, roads and other infrastructure projects over the next five years – notably much of this will come in the so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies that switched their allegiance.

There are plenty of plans out there waiting for approval, and councils are keen to address their own priorities now that we have some headroom in Westminster and Whitehall following two years of starvation due to Brexit and weak government.

What happens next is, to a large extent, dependent on negotiations with the EU on everything from freedom of movement, security, defence, science, education, the environment to developing a new economic relationship. Depending on the way those negotiations go (and what any trade deal looks like) this could either free up the Government to carry out its grand vision – or further constrain it.

In short, the next 12 months are likely to be crucial to what the UK will look like in future.

Leeds is back in the headlines

The Conservatives’ promises offered teasing snippets of investment in new light rail schemes across the Midlands and north of England. Just before the election, they pledged £4.2bn from 2022 for local transport projects in the main Combined Authority or Mayor-controlled areas.

The statements made even went so far as to announce what some of these schemes might be: realisation of further West Midlands Metro lines to the airport and North Solihull, enhancements to the Tyne and Wear Metro, and a ‘Phase 4’ for Greater Manchester Metrolink, including to Stockport and Bolton.

Possibly most tantalising is the commitment to the development of a rapid transit project for West Yorkshire. In the Queen’s Speech debate on 19 December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson seemed fairly clear, reiterating his commitment that “we will remedy the scandal that Leeds is the largest city in Western Europe without light rail or a metro.”

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has already launched its consultations to implement light rail, tram-train or bus rapid transit by 2033.Preliminary plans for three routes have already been revealed, linking Leeds to neighbouring areas – but they will need financial backing from the Government to once and for all put the disappointment of the failed tramway and trolleybus schemes behind them and deliver the improved transport that the people of Leeds have been waiting for for over two decades.

So now authorities across England are back to the stage of bidding for their share of this pot of promised cash. Almost certainly local contributions would be required as four billion won’t actually go very far, but there will likely be other local growth initiatives over the next five years that could make the pot bigger.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that “these plans will change the face of local transport in towns and cities across the country… They will kickstart the transformation of services so they match those in London, ensuring more frequent and better services, more electrification, modern buses and trains and contactless smart ticketing.”

All positive words, but now we must wait for the actions to reinforce them… after all, there have been false dawns before.

But the transport landscape has undoubtedly opened up once again and Boris Johnson has put some cash on the table. It is possible that this Government could be the most radical in a generation. Arguably, if it is to succeed, it will have to be – the voters are watching…

(This blog post is adapted from a more comprehensive analysis in the February 2020 edition of Tramways & Urban Transit)

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