It wasn't hard to see through the smoke and mirrors at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this week. As ever, a story of a little bit of jam tomorrow, mixed in with rehashed and repackaged announcements.
Announcements of any sort were few and far between, so Chancellor Phillip Hammond's announcement of £100 million for new roads and £300 million for rail in the North stood out.
The response of the North-East Chamber of Commerce was scathing, pointing out that £100 million for roads is about the cost of a single roundabout project. Strangely enough the Chancellor neglected to mention that the government's mismanagement of our roads has created funding shortfall of £841 million, meaning more than half of new road investment won't even begin until 2019. Any promises of reduced congested & improved connectivity from the Conservatives ought to be taken with a pinch of the proverbial salt.
Then came the main transport policy announcement: £300 million for rail improvements in the North. Again, the Conservatives conveniently forgot to mention this summer's cancellation of £1.7 billion worth of rail modernisation for the Midlands, the North, Wales and the South West, so the £300 million is really a desperate pledge to fill a conference speech.
Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, also forgot to say that the vital Trans Pennine route between Manchester and Leeds will no longer be fully electrified, despite repeated promises to the contrary since 2010. This is particularly bad news for wider rail connectivity across the North, derailing plans for a Crossrail for the North which the National Infrastructure Commission has recognised as a national priority.
Instead of the electric trains they were promised, the North will receive bi-mode trains to run on diesel on non-electrified track. These trains are slow, unreliable and polluting. Pacer trains - essentially decade old buses on train tracks - have, for many Northerners, become a symbol of underinvestment in and neglect of their region. The decision of the Transport Secretary that fully electric trains should be denied to the North, risks entrenching a two-tier transport network in the UK with bi-mode trains becoming the new Pacers.
Following his announcement that he was pulling the plug on promised rail upgrades, Chris Grayling has told the North to pull itself up by its bootstraps, saying that it was up to the North, not central government, to fund and deliver new infrastructure, despite having given the greenlight for plans to build Crossrail 2 for London and the South East just weeks earlier.
It's not lost on passengers, businesses and local politicians that the North enjoys only a fraction of the funding and powers afforded to other parts of the country. London receives over £1500 more transport investment per person than the North along with powers to raise investment for planned infrastructure. Seventy percent 70% of rail journeys begin or end in the capital while the South East has the highest per capita tax receipts in the UK so it is right that investment in London and the South East continues but each country and region must receive its fair share. Transport investment should not be an either/or decision.
Labour wants to harness the power of each region of the UK. Investing in transport infrastructure is one of the best ways to drive national and regional economic growth, in addition to boosting productivity and tackling climate change.
At present, the UK is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Tackling these regional inequalities means doing away with the measures by which investment priorities are currently decided, which prejudices poorer regions and favours investment in wealthier areas - largely London and the South East. Labour is committed to rebalancing our economy, recognising that investment ought to be more equally distributed across our country.
That's why Labour supports rail upgrades across the UK, from Crossrail 2 in London to delivering an East-West rail link from Oxford through to Bedford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge and Norwich. And we have pledged at least £10 billion for Crossrail for the North to unlock the huge untapped economic potential of the 16 million people living in the North of England, and help deliver 850,000 new jobs by 2050.
By contrast, the Conservatives are refusing to say precisely where the £400 million of transport investment will be spent. Why make an announcement without a plan? The reason is that this is a government without a plan, and merely shows how out of the touch the Tories are with the needs and ambitions of the North.
Andy McDonald MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for TransportSuggest a correction