Sarah Longlands: Funding gap behind North’s rail woes

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MY journey to work means that I circumnavigate the notorious Bolton to Manchester line – where electrification was supposed to have been finished at the end of 2017 – on a daily basis. It has never been a very comfortable journey, with standing room only on most days, but the service has become increasingly challenging and frustrating in recent weeks.

As we head towards a second summer of discontent on the North’s railways, it seems as if the Government in Westminster still don’t get it. At least part of the reason for the current chaos is the fact that the Northern transport system is still so woefully underfunded when compared to London. Our research in 2017 showed that transport in the North has been underfunded by £59bn compared with London.

Passengers waiting for a train at Horsforth Station.

Passengers waiting for a train at Horsforth Station.

More recently, in a research briefing published in January 2018, IPPR North provided an in-depth analysis of the Government’s infrastructure plans for the coming years, which were published by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). The IPA’s figures included spending up to the financial years 2020/21, thereby excluding some £56bn of spending, a large proportion of which is in London.

Our analysis of these figures showed that the North received £2,555 less per person than London. The proportion of expenditure in London was, on average, 2.6 times that of the North and more than five times as much as Yorkshire and the Humber. This means that up until 2021, Yorkshire and Humber is set to receive £844 per person compared with £4,155 per person in London.

But what these figures do not convey is the human cost of the transport disparity. The late meetings, the missed bedtimes the cancelled health appointments and the sheer exhaustion of hanging around railway stations trying to second guess which delayed train will leave first.

While there are clearly questions about what has gone wrong in terms of the process, the debate on transport in the North also needs to move on, to think about how to make things better.

That isn’t just about something as basic as a working timetable, but ensuring that the services are geared around a positive experience for the people of the North. A German planner in Freiburg, a town renowned for its good quality infrastructure, once told me that an effective transport system for people needs to be focused on four criteria: cheap, clean, safe and on time. At the moment, even before the crisis, many of our public transport services failed miserably on this front.

A good place to start would be to ensure that the decisions about local and sub-national transport services are made closer to where people live. That’s why we’ve been calling for organisations such as Transport for the North to have the same powers as Transport for London.

Secondly, we need acknowledgement on the part of Government that the North is just of deserving of investment in critical infrastructure as London. A prosperous economy in the North is not only good for Northerners, it’s good for everyone in the UK, helping to boost tax revenues and create employment. Indeed, many parts of the North are growing at a faster rate than London and the South East. For example, the economy of Leeds is forecast to grow by 21 per cent over the next 10 years. Places with this kind of latent potential have the capacity to grow through the provision of adequate infrastructure.

If there are billions available for Heathrow, based on an argument that this will generate wider regional benefits, then the same should apply to strategic infrastructure investment in the North.

Finally, we need to think differently about the rationale for public investment in transport. Public sector intervention plays a crucial role in helping to provide good conditions for great places for people to live and work, through investment in infrastructure and good public services. But why should this precious public resource be prioritised in places where the market is already successful? Surely public investment can – and must – be used in a much more entrepreneurial way.

Sarah Longlands is director of the IPPR North.