This post originally appeared on Lib Dem Voice.
On Thursday, Patrick McLoughlin announced what many of us had feared but were hoping would never happen: electrification of the train line between Manchester and Leeds was to be postponed, and possibly cancelled. The lynchpin of the Northern Powerhouse was pulled out and the plan predictably fell apart at the seams.
Three months ago, the Conservatives promised that £38 bn would be invested in the national rail network, mostly into electrifying the old diesel lines. This was so important to the Tories, we were told, that it was at the top of the manifesto. On page 11, the Tories outlined their plans for £13 bn for the North alone, going towards new trains, new lines, and new wires. And in one speech today, McLoughlin snuffed out the flame of hope in such a way on the Tories can.
The rail network in the North is completely dire, and bears all of the hallmarks of central government in London meddling time and time again. Serco-Abellio were awarded all but the actually profitable lines and told to run a vast network in the North using Cold War-era trains under the assumption that there was to be no growth and no investment in the Northern network. And to their credit, they’ve done a good job from what they’ve been given.
But rail in the north has grown beyond all expectations, and the small old “Pacer” trains, built on the cheap thirty years ago, can’t take the strain any longer. New trains and new electric wires would enable the North to step into the twentieth century while London aimed towards the twenty-second. But with electrification across the North and Midlands all but cancelled, we cannot expect the trains to be off the tracks for good before the Disability Discrimination Act’s deadline of 2019.
But, to nobody’s surprise, rail schemes in the South escaped the cut. The worst thing is that this isn’t a change in the state of affairs. Labour too must shoulder responsibility for the state of the North. They took their safe constituencies in the North for granted whilst bribing London with train line upon train line upon train line. Whilst Alistair Darling was busy approving Crossrail with its £20bn price-tag and funnelling more money into Thameslink, the DLR, and Terminal 5, tram projects in both Manchester and Leeds costing a fraction of the price got the axe from his department. All at the same time electrifying only nine miles of track. And they are now sowing the effects of complacency, with UKIP taking chunks of their support all across the North.
When compared to the two major parties, even doing nothing at all would make us come out smelling like roses. But we didn’t do just that. In the coalition, we grabbed the nettle by the thorn and pushed for the approval of the biggest rail project for the North for generatins: the Northern Hub. We pushed for wide-ranging electrification. And when Network Rail’s plans for electrification initially left out the Calder Valley line, local Liberal Democrats alongside our former transport minister, Baroness Kramer, lobbied for its inclusion.
As liberals, we know that the only way to prosperity is to give people the power to prosper, not by dictating that they must. We see in Scotland and Wales the success of proper representative devolution. And we see that, with the Northern Powerhouse, Osborne’s city region mayors, overwhelmingly rejected in Sheffield, Manchester, and Leeds just three years ago, will now be one-eyed kings leading the blind.
In November, the Yorkshire and Humber regional conference overwhelmingly passed motions for proper and accountable devolution and prosperity. Yorkshire clearly wants to replace unaccountable layers of bureaucracy with a strong democratically elected Parliament. Manchester clearly wants its own powers to build its own path to prosperity. As our MP in Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland said, “Yorkshire is the real entity. It is Yorkshire that is the brand and that has the huge economic potential for growth”. For a more prosperous North and for modern infrastructure, the only way forward is proper and accountable devolution. And we must push with every fibre of our resolve to secure that.