Sam Bright inspects how the Government is undermining its ‘Levelling Up’ mission through a new era of public transport austerity
The improvement and “modernisation” of Britain’s railways is ostensibly a core feature of the Conservative Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.
The Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, released in February, promised to “deliver faster, more frequent and more reliable journeys across the north of England and the midlands”.
“Investment in connectivity can improve productivity and economic performance right across these regions”, it added.
Indeed, transport links are crucial to the economic performance of an area and the social mobility of its population. Good transport links improve the exchange of knowledge and resources, allowing the public and private sectors to operate more efficiently. This mobility also helps individuals to access better educational and employment opportunities – boosting their economic prospects.
Currently, however, many towns and cities are ostracised by virtue of their poor public transport links – with commuting to London often easier than catching a service to a neighbouring town. For example, while it takes two hours to travel from Wakefield to the capital (200 miles) via rail, it takes 90 minutes to travel a much shorter distance (50 miles) to Manchester.
Though Britain’s poor productivity has many inputs, this is surely one of the reasons why economic output in London, measured in terms of gross value added per hour worked, is 30% above the England-wide average, and 55% above the lowest-performing region.
Yet, for all the Government’s rhetoric, its actions are undermining Boris Johnson’s regional rebalancing agenda.
The Prime Minister’s economic philosophy has been labelled as ‘boosterism’ – in other words, keeping tax rates high and injecting shots of money into infrastructure.
However, this description neglects the day-to-day austerity that Johnson’s Government is inflicting on public services – including the railways. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is dutifully carrying out this agenda – pushing through cuts to Network Rail, and saying that he expects £1.5 billion-a-year savings from Great British Railways, the state-owned body that will oversee rail transport in Britain when it launches in 2023.
This austerity is more important than ever, in the context of decisions taken by the Government during the pandemic. In a (successful) attempt to stop mass financial losses, due to collapsing passenger numbers, ministers took the operation of the railways back under public management – with the Government paying private firms an operating fee and covering their losses.
However, after spending £16 billion on keeping the trains running during the pandemic, the Department for Transport is now seeking to cut its spending by 10%. As a result, these cost savings are being passed on to the train operating companies, and Network Rail.
This has a knock-on effect, saddling train passengers with diminished services and undermining the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. Indeed, local train services – typically routes servicing small towns, that are less profitable for the private providers – are being cut. “I am deeply concerned that the impact of the pandemic is being used as a smokescreen for cuts to local rail services,” says West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin, who has seen services reduced in her region.
This is part of the explanation for this week’s rail strike – with Network Rail attempting to implement cost savings that risk restraining the wages of rail workers, and could result in redundancies. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has initiated a walkout, to negotiate a better settlement.
In relation to the strikes, Labour’s Shadow Rail Minister Tan Dhesi told Byline Times that: “Frankly, Government ministers are spoiling for a fight, providing a helpful distraction to their own incompetence and a helpful vehicle to justify cutting back our railways further. There is no doubt that the Government is far more interested in pushing their own agenda rather than acting in the public interest.”
Ministers and press officers point out that the Government’s ‘Integrated Rail Plan’ promises to invest £96 billion in improving Britain’s rail network – namely by building the western line of HS2, linking the northwest to Birmingham and London. A much-needed upgrade to Transpennine infrastructure in the north of England will also take place, reducing the commute from Leeds to Manchester from 55 to 33 minutes.
This plan has been criticised – not least for dropping the eastern leg of HS2, and for dropping plans to build a new, high-speed east-west line linking Manchester to Leeds. Transport for North has called the plan insufficient, with its chair Conservative peer Lord Patrick McLoughlin saying that it “goes against the best interest of people in the north and fails to deliver the step-change in rail services.”
That said, the Integrated Rail Plan constitutes a significant amount of public investment – albeit less than is necessary. We, therefore, have the Government piling billions into the evolution of rail infrastructure while cutting back spending on the day-to-day operation of the network – which is a major policy contradiction.
But this isn’t a surprise. Marcus Johns of IPPR North described Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s autumn budget as “capital intense and revenue light”. He added that “the Chancellor’s new fiscal rules could lock in austerity in public services and local government while Government points to new infrastructure projects as levelling up.”
The Government’s rail infrastructure schemes are not vanity projects – unlike plenty of its levelling-up projects. Its £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan will measurably improve the quality of rail travel in the UK. But the improvements risk being undermined significantly if the network is hollowed-out in the meantime by day-to-day spending cuts.
And, as we’re already witnessing, this austerity will once again be suffered by the poorest areas of the country – the very places that have been promised a new era of economic renewal by the Conservative Party.
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