Short-termism ‘undermines bid to bridge North-South divide’

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Civic and business leaders say the Government’s “narrow focus on short-term financial criteria” is contributing to the disparities in funding for rail infrastructure between the North and South.

The Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (SIGOMA), which represents 46 councils, and rail infrastructure firm Balfour Beatty have submitted evidence to the Transport Select Committee’s rail infrastructure inquiry.

Their submissions, whose contents have been revealed to The Yorkshire Post, include claims that a lack of statutory powers for the North’s strategic transport body was partly to blame for the regional divide.

The claims come on the day North Yorkshire County Council announced it would be pushing ahead with its plans to double the number of passenger trains between Harrogate and York to two an hour by 2020, a project that will cost £12.5m

Critics say the gulf in transport spending between the North and London is damaging the country’s overall productivity and undermining the Government’s apparent commitment to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ project.

Last month, the Government’s own figures showed that capital investment by the Department of Transport on Yorkshire as a percentage of London’s total shrunk between 2012/13 and 2016/17, despite both seeing more investment over this period.

The Transport Select Committee last month announced the inquiry “looking at whether the current system of planning and delivering investment in rail infrastructure is adequate”.

In its submission, SIGOMA argued that the Treasury’s tendency to prioritise short-term over long-term benefits “may be undermining their aim of tackling the underlying structural issues holding back the nation’s productivity”.

It added: “Economic re-balancing cannot take place as long as [they] continue to prioritise the ‘highest value-for-money’ projects.

“Government should therefore attach a much greater weighting to transport investment’s potential to generate economic growth.”

Both the group and Balfour Beatty also claimed the status of the new strategic body Transport for the North (TfN), which will not be able to borrow money or fund investment, was another problem.

Earlier this week, the House of Lords approved regulations which would allow TfN to become a statutory body, the first of its kind in the country, on April 1. The move will be debated by MPs next month.

Sir Stephen Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council and chair of SIGOMA, said: “Good transport links are essential to spreading the benefits of higher productivity and stronger economic growth across the whole country, in line with the stated objectives of the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

“But a failure to address an allocation basis that favours the most productive parts of the country, and a framework that doesn’t devolve to other sub-national transport bodies powers and funding equivalent to those enjoyed by Transport for London, will prevent their fulfilment.

“The fact that local government and industry have independently settled on the same issues, identifying that the same obstacles are currently holding the country back, should speak volumes.”

The Government denies there is a North-South gap on transport spending, citing its plans to replace or refurbish all trains on the Northern franchise.

A Government spokesperson said: “Transport investment is crucial to a strong and resilient economy, and that’s why we are increasing government infrastructure investment by 50% over the next four years.

“We are investing in the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century, spending billions of pounds to better connect communities, and delivering HS2 to improve the vital links between some of our country’s biggest cities.

“The benefit cost ratio is only part of the decision-making process, which includes looking at long-term strategic goals and considers commercial, financial and management matters.”

Millennium Square and Leeds Civic Hall, Leeds City Centre.

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