Levelling up? Broken promises on Northern transport

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Anyone who has walked up North Road recently will appreciate the claim that funding for public transport in the County Durham area is woefully short and inadequate, with temporary bus shelters littered across the narrow pavement as work on renovations to the original bus station continues. 

According to recent survey data from the Office for National Statistics, County Durham is one of the most deprived areas of the country. It is fair to say that public transport is vital for a large proportion of residents in the North East to get to work or school. 

Yet, over recent years, the funding that local councils have been able to provide to help subsidise and renovate public transport has been minimal – but hope was on the horizon. In conjunction with the ‘levelling up agenda’ in other public sectors, national government offered £3bn to local council and bus operators to revolutionise North Eastern public transport. In a similar vein to Transport for London’s vision the hope was for cheaper fares, low emission buses and only needing a single ticket to travel on the network (like the Oyster card). However, The Northern Echo recently reported that the money offered to innovate bus networks outside of London has been cut in the Budget to £1.2bn. North East council leaders fear for their £800m share, with one figure describing the Government’s changing financial pledges as “disingenuous”. 

People need a cheap, reliable bus network that delivers for them

This £1.2bn is designed to be a “bus transformation” deal according to the Government, who wish to deliver on their manifesto pledge to ‘level up’ local public transport networks in the North of England, in line with high standards in the capital. Investment in bus transport networks in the North East is sorely needed, with some rural areas (such as Northumberland) being completely inaccessible using the current public transport network. With rising prices on other goods and services stretching the wages of the poorest to the limit, people need a cheap, reliable bus network that delivers for them – ‘levelling up’ could not come fast enough. 

Recent news of cuts in funding to the proposed HS2 rail network and Northern Powerhouse rail lines not receiving funding to service the city of Bradford on a refurbished line connecting Manchester and Leeds shows the increasing precarity of the funding prospects of North Eastern public transport. HS2 was a key Conservative manifesto pledge over the past decade to deliver levelling up of the North – if this flagship scheme has been altered beyond repair, what hope is there for bus renovation plans in County Durham? 

Last week, six major Northern newspapers ran a joint headline calling on leaders to “deliver what you promised”, as Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham criticised the Government’s “patronising” mentality on the issue. The discontent is clear and could have ramifications for Conservative electoral prospects in future. As the country emerges from the pandemic, voters in Red Wall seats will be expecting returns on the promises made in 2019, though it seems that these may not materialise as expected. Whether blamed on post-pandemic finances or other logic, Burnham’s discontent could be prescient. 

With the recent reinstating of the ‘night tube’ in London, and the plans to invest further in Manchester’s tram network, it can only be hoped that the £800m does materialise for the North East, as it would bring with it greater access to jobs and truly sustainable ‘levelling up’. 

Image: Dmitry Makeev via Wikimedia Commons

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