The trolleybus is one of the biggest, most controversial transport schemes to affect Leeds in years and it is set to become a political football this may. Neil Hudson reports.
Prospective Green council candidates are out in force on the streets of north Leeds and there’s one issue they’re pushing more than most - it’s an issue which is set to dominate local elections in May: trolleybus.
The £250m scheme continues to divide opinion, with West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority (Metro) and Leeds City Council among its most prominent backers. However, lined up against them is an increasingly organised opposition composed of a number of residents’ associations, business owners and Leeds Labour MP George Mudie, plus several industry experts.
Mr Mudie claims the ruling Labour group on Leeds City Council has imposed a three-line whip on the issue, forcing its councillors to vote in favour of the plans, which will see a new 14km trolleybus system cut through some of the most congested streets in the city.
The dream, of course, is to create the foundations of a modern transport system, one which its supporters say will get people out of their cars.
Whatever the detail, come election time the scheme which started life almost as a political gimmick when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg turned up in Leeds in July 2012 brandishing a cheque for £175m, is set to become more even more black and white.
A decade after the city was denied its golden transport bullet, aka ‘Supertram’, the city is still undecided over how to solve its congestion problem.
Christopher Foren, 58, a former Crown Prosecution Service lawyer, will be standing for election as a Green Party candidate in May in Hyde Park and Woodhouse.
He said: “We’re in favour of the electrification of public transport, we’re just not in favour of this scheme, which by Metro’s own admission, will increase congestion and overall CO2 levels.
“We are agnostic about NGT technology but certainly for north Leeds, we do not believe it’s the right scheme. A lot of historic buildings will be affected and people are concerned about the impact of building metal structures. A great number of established trees will need to be removed, overall we believe it will result in environmental degradation.
“A lot of money has already been spent on trolleybus but there’s no point in our view in wasting more money on a scheme which is only going to marginally improve journey times.
“We think it would be far better to spend the money on things like segregated cycle lanes, as they have in many European cities. Segregated lanes would bring about a modal shift in how people commute.”
Metro’s own scheme appraisal states the trolleybus will result in “reduced tax receipts from increased spending on untaxed public transport receipts largely offset by increased receipts from duty resulting from additional fuel consumption from additional congestions.” In English: people in cars will spend more on petrol because they will be stuck in traffic for longer, while the number of buses needing to be taxed will decrease.
But many are in complete support of the scheme.
The Rev Robin Paterson, from Manston Way, Cross Gates, said: “Following a recent visit to Ashton Under Lyne, using the free park and ride, the journey put any experience of travelling on public transport in Leeds to shame. The tram was on time, clean, quick and effortless. Ticketing was simple and cheap (£4.80 for all day) and tram stops sheltered and full of customer service applications.
“I wonder if the same people who complain about a dozen or so buildings coming down along with a clutch of trees give a single thought to the occupants of housing that borders the motorways and rail routes they use to travel the country with ease? Thank heavens these people were not around when Britain was involved in some of the massive transport engineering successes of the past.
“It is about time the folk that will benefit from modernised transport in Leeds spoke up for themselves for a change and realise if they don’t the little people so protective of their little corner will win the day and we will be stuck forever with a hotch-potch of initiatives that to date are both scruffy, ugly and ineffective.”
Leeds Labour MP George Mudie is equally vocal in his opposition.
He said: “It’s a third rate scheme that’s going to cause untold damage to parts of Leeds. When I see the amount being spent in the capital on things like the Jubilee Line extension and the Crossrail underground line, which is costing something like £16bn, I think it’s a scandal Leeds is having to settle for a trolleybus. “There would have been a whip for Labour councillors in Leeds when they voted on it. Luckily, their whip does not extend to me. For me, an underground for Leeds is the number one system, Supertram was the second choice, what we’ve got now is third rate.”
Coun James Lewis, chair of Metro, said there was a Labour whip but added: “That is only to put the whole thing to a public inquiry. When the Government offered us the £175m, they were pretty clear it had to be for this project, so there’s no real chance of it being used for something else.
“That’s not to say we want to implement a defective system, we want it to be the best for Leeds, to improve transport in the city.
“It’s not a scheme that’s just been plucked off the shelf. We think if the scheme is approved, it will be 2019 or 2020 before it is up and running. I am surprised at the u-turn by the Green group, who supported it to begin with.
“This isn’t the only transport project for Leeds, we have the electrification of the York-Leeds and Huddersfield-Manchester rail lines coming up in the next five years, there’s a new station to be built at Kirkstall Forge and we’re installing 20km of cycleway from Leeds through the city to Bradford.”
Residents give 20 reasons to stop the scheme
A residents’ group in part of Leeds has drawn up a 20-point manifesto, opposing the Trolleybus scheme.
Prof Peter Bonsall, Emeritus Professor of Transport at the University of Leeds, who lives close to the proposed route, has been enlisted by members of the North West Leeds Transport Forum, an umbrella organisation for a number of residents’ groups opposed to the scheme.
He said: “Trolleybus is really a pared-down version of Supertram and it won’t fit into the existing street layout without causing more damage than is worthwhile.
“Whereas, the proposals drawn up could deliver real advantages for a fraction of the cost. The mentality at Metro seems to be that we must do whatever we can to get this money and the thinking is that if we don’t get trolleybus then we won’t get the money. To my mind, it makes no sense to spend lots of money on a system which will increase congestion, increase greenhouse gases and irrevocably damage many businesses.
“Metro’s own report states trolleybus will not alleviate congestion but make it worse. Metro are in a funny position because they cannot admit there is an alternative, which there is, because once they do, trolleybus is dead.
“You can improve transport along the A660 without building an entirely new system - the main way to do that would be to make it quicker for people to get on buses, in other words, as they do in London. It would be ticketless, similar to the Oyster card system. The bus companies are in favour but again, they are not going to invest in a system if services are going to be cut.
“Leeds has missed out massively in terms of investment but that’s no reason to go all out for something which is clearly the wrong scheme.
“The other thing is, if trolleybus goes ahead, bus services to places like Adel and Cookridge are likely to be scaled back.
“Appraisal work by Metro indicates in addition to increasing congestion and carbon emissions, it will cost local businesses around £1m in time, as employees will be caught up in the congestion.”