Judith Blake: Lack of transport investment in North harming UK economy

22 June 2018

The Convention of the North has been in the planning for months but the timing could not be more appropriate.

Leaders from across the North are gathering in Newcastle this weekend as we continue to deal with the fallout of the imposition of an emergency timetable on our railways. Indeed, many will be travelling by train and will likely arrive at the conference with immediate experience of the chaos that has engulfed passengers since the catastrophic changes made at the end of May.

Is the shambles we are currently seeing on our railways the consequence of delayed infrastructure delivery, poor planning and a lack of political and passenger influence? Yes, absolutely, but it is also a symptom of the creaking state of the rail network across the North which lacks the capacity to deal with current demand let alone meet forecasts for economic growth.

When, eventually, rail services get back to normal this will not represent a panacea for passengers. It will merely mean that the extremely poor service to which they have been subjected in recent weeks will have returned to the indifferent service with which rail users in the North of England are grimly familiar.

Over decades this country has failed to invest in infrastructure in the North and now we are collectively reaping what successive Governments have sown. That lack of investment is not just inconveniencing rail passengers, stopping them get to work or college, stopping parents seeing their children before bedtime, it is also damaging the prospects for our economy.

We are supposed to be creating a Northern Powerhouse which helps rebalance the UK economy away from reliance on the South-East and yet we are trying to build it on the shakiest of foundations. A modern, reliable, quick transport system must be the cornerstone of the economic transformation we and the country need to see in the North.

That is why the emails obtained by Lisa Nandy MP and the attitude among Department for Transport officials to rail in the North revealed this week are so disturbing.

The Government is currently considering the case for electrification of the crucial trans-Pennine route and will soon be asked to put its financial support behind the emerging plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail, a high speed rail network including a new line connecting Leeds to Manchester via Bradford. How can we have confidence that the correct decisions will be taken when officials understand, and apparently care, so little of what is at stake?

Last August, Leeds hosted a summit in response to concerns that commitment to investing in transport in the North of England was wavering. United, civic and business leaders left the Government in no doubt as to the strength of feeling on this issue.

This weekend leaders will again unite to make the call for substantial investment in our transport network and for us to have more control over the decisions that affect our lives without constructing unnecessary bureaucracy. We will do so unapologetically and on behalf of the whole country which needs an economically thriving North as much as we do.

Cllr Judith Blake is Leader of Leeds City Council and represents the West Yorkshire Combined Authority on the Transport for the North board. Cllr Blake is leading a review of the rail disruption which will report its findings to Rail Minister Jo Johnson.