Simon Cooke: Forget trolleybus and bring in national transport experts to get Yorkshire moving

The trolleybus debacle has exposed the lack of transport planning expertise in Leeds and West Yorkshire, according to Bradford councillor Simon Cooke.
The trolleybus debacle has exposed the lack of transport planning expertise in Leeds and West Yorkshire, according to Bradford councillor Simon Cooke.
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I WAS slightly bemused to read your Saturday columnist Tom Richmond’s latest piece bemoaning the absence of his invitation to tomorrow’s transport summit in Leeds.

I am a member of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which has transport responsibilities for West Yorkshire and maybe beyond in the near future, but I, too, have not received an invitation to this summit.

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It has been common knowledge for a long time that the Leeds trolleybus project was fundamentally flawed. It should have come as no surprise to anyone involved when the planning inspector observed that the scheme would not achieve its objective of increasing connectivity for deprived communities and would actually increase congestion. Casual observers could readily deduce that the scheme served no real purpose.

And herein lay the problems. The people driving the project have had a very narrow focus, on a very localised scheme, augmented by very limited ambition and expertise, in transport planning terms.

Placing an emphasis on improving connectivity for deprived local communities seems right, but is better achieved through better buses than fixed systems such as trolleybus.

In an increasingly globalised marketplace, however, the infrastructure to quickly transport people and goods further afield is increasingly important and warrants the investment of much effort, forethought and genuine expertise. Over 44,000 people commute between Leeds and Bradford everyday to work, the largest volume of commutes between two cities anywhere in the UK. Three in four of these journeys are by car.

The current focus on creating a Northern Powerhouse provides the opportunity, and hopefully impetus, to improve West Yorkshire’s economy and the quality of life for the whole county.

The concern I have is that Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool and other major cities in the North seize the opportunity to improve their economic connectivity, while West Yorkshire gazes inwardly at transport schemes of little economic relevance. Worse that Leeds continues to exclude connectivity with Bradford and elsewhere in Yorkshire from planning for transport in the city-region.

It was clear that a fundamental problem with the planning of the trolleybus scheme was an absence of genuine expertise. When the political leadership and senior officials involved are “not experts in transport planning”, that expertise should be bought in. This could have saved much of the £72m spent on schemes that haven’t happened.

I suspect the invitation list for this summit will consist largely of those responsible for the debacle, possibly accompanied by a few people with some limited knowledge of transport planning.

I am making an observation rather than having a dig when I say that many of those involved in transport planning in West Yorkshire have an understanding of how bus routes are subsidised and, to a lesser extent, how train services should be overseen, but no expertise at all when it comes to how travel will work in the future. What was once science fiction may soon become science fact. It may still seem fanciful that drones could carry much of the transport burden of the future but we have to remember that technology has moved at a phenomenal rate over the last three or four decades.

Did anyone confidently predict the use of drones to deliver packages for Amazon? Chains of semi-autonomous trucks on the M6? Or driverless cars travelling thousands of miles without accident or mishap? Yet all of these things have happened in the past year or so. Trolleybuses, already old technology, would become a thing of the past.

This is just speculation, the ponderings of a councillor, but we are charged with providing the political leadership in planning the transport infrastructure for the region’s future success.

I think that now is the right time to hold a genuine, fit for purpose, summit, bringing together transport and technology experts from across the country and possibly beyond to brief political leaders and council officials on where the future of transport is heading.

The proposed summit appears to have a very narrow remit, for a small number of people to take decisions of critical importance, without the input of high level expertise.

We need to be looking forward, not inward – 21st century transport, not 19th century transport.

Simon Cooke is the Conservative leader on Bradford Council.

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