Tackling regional inequality and improving transport links must a priority in the Covid recovery
Former chancellor George Osborne attends the naming ceremony for a refurbished Class 319 electric train at Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station in 2015. | PA Images.
Regional inequality in the UK has worsened over the past decade. Proper investment in green, fast transport infrastructure will go some of the way to tackling this
Britain’s economy is the most geographically unequal in Europe, with huge variations in the strength of local economies across the country. Economic restructuring has concentrated businesses and jobs in some parts of the country while holding back the potential of others.
As we transition fully out of lockdown, we need to enable our economy to recover with policy and fiscal interventions that support our regions to get back to business as normal. We need to support both the public and private sector. Tory ministers have failed to show how they will put public services on a secure footing. Local government is facing a £10bn funding gap black hole. Strong local government is vital for strong local transport. For example, the news of £100m for roads, skips over the £10bn pothole backlog. The Government’s pledge is just 1% of what is needed, just for potholes.
If the North had seen the same per person investment as London over the last decade, it would have received £66bn more
While we continue to face the current pandemic, we shouldn’t lose sight of the climate crisis. We must use this moment of societal upheaval to change mindset and to transition to greener forms of living, particularly greener forms of travel. While the government announcement of £2bn investment in cycling is welcome, we’ve seen precious little detail on how the money will be spent. The Government’s pace of change is all too slow to ensure that people are safe on our roads and to ensure that we do not see a return to habits of old.
Going forward we must address the structural underlying economic inequalities which existed before Covid-19. The economic divide that has grown over the last 10 years due to austerity, which successive Tory prime ministers have imposed, has held certain areas of the country back, whilst others have been allowed to grow. The gap between per capita transport spending in London and per capita spending in the North has increased in the last 10 years. If the North had seen the same per person investment as London over the last decade, it would have received £66bn more. Because it takes more than just one-off capital spending but day to day, revenue spending too, to ensure that once we’re on a stable footing we stay there.
From big infrastructure projects to small local schemes, Tory ministers have failed to follow through on commitments they’ve made to these held back areas. In the North we’ve still got pacer trains, we’ve not seen the promised electrification of routes in the Midlands and the A303 is still waiting to see its dual carriageway.
The latest in a long line of Tory failures on transport in the North and Yorkshire is Northern Powerhouse rail which construction won’t start on, for several years. The root of the problem is that six years on from it first being announced, the Government still hasn’t approved the project. After numerous Government announcements endorsing it, this is perplexing. We need to know from Tory ministers what the delay is and why they’ve failed to get on top of another major infrastructure project. Our rail network in the North and Yorkshire is in urgent need of upgrading. The average rail speed between key cities up here amounts to around 54 mph - only 9 mph faster than road. You can fly from Liverpool to Lisbon faster than you get from Liverpool to Newcastle by rail.
The UK is a deeply economically divided country. The Government has had 10 years to fix this, but under the Conservatives the situation has worsened. We need a credible plan to rebalance Britain. One where spending is rooted in communities, public services are invested in and anyone, no matter where they grow up, has the opportunity to realise their full potential.
Jim McMahon MP is the Labour Co-op MP for Oldham West and Royton and shadow transport secretary.