Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has come out fighting over his department’s commitment to the North as he insisted the region’s leaders have all the same powers to improve services as their counterparts in London.
During a visit to Yorkshire yesterday, Mr Grayling angrily dismissed criticism of his failure to appear at a Commons debate on northern transport and insisted the Government’s actions showed its willingness to improve the North’s infrastructure.
The Department for Transport this week started the process for giving statutory status to strategic body Transport for the North, amid criticism that it would not enjoy the same funding or revenue-raising powers as Transport for London (TfL) in the capital.
In response, Mr Grayling said the North already had comparable powers to TfL, but spread across a number of local bodies, adding that he would be open to a proposal from West Yorkshire leaders over possible bus franchising.
He said: “There aren’t some magical pile of powers waiting in London that we are not handing over to the North that we are giving to Transport for London. Actually the North collectively, albeit in a number of different bodies, has those powers already.”
The Transport Secretary has faced mounting criticism from politicians over the widening gulf in transport funding between the North and London. He was criticised earlier this month for not attending a backbench debate on northern transport, instead sending junior minister Jesse Norman to respond.
There aren’t some magical pile of powers waiting in London that we are not handing over to the North.Transport Secretary Chris Grayling
Describing the comments as ‘nonsense’, he said: “This is Labour MPs causing mischief, if you want to see the Government’s commitment and my commitment to northern transport, look at what we’re actually doing.
“It’s not about a backbench debate in the House of Commons, which as a matter of routine are done by members of the ministerial team, by all departments, every week, in all circumstances.”
Mr Grayling pointed to the £3bn programme to modernise the Trans-Pennine rail route between Manchester, Leeds and York, and a further £1bn on Trans-Pennine road links, as evidence of his commitment to the North. And he said every train in the North, including the outdated rolling stock that took him from York to Horsforth yesterday, was being replaced as part of the Government’s Great North Rail Project.
He said: “The commitment’s there, around a third of the money that is going to be spent on rail enhancements across England and Wales between now and 2024 is being spent on Trans-Pennine improvements.”
Asked what difference the new powers for TfN would make to transport users in Yorkshire, he said: “The thing that affects their journeys is stuff we actually do. The purpose of TfN is to say ‘these are the things we think you should concentrate on first, that will make the biggest difference to people here’.
“They help us shape the right strategy, but the thing that makes the difference to passengers is those new trains that are arriving, or those new roads that are opening, or that smart motorway
that we are doing across the Pennines, or the dualling of the A66.
“It is the stuff we do that is making a difference and my response to all of those who say the Government is not doing the right thing on transport for the North, is to say ‘just look at what is actually happening’, as we see those new trains arrive in the coming months, as we see those new bits of road open’.”
Questioned about the claim that Transport for the North officials would have to ask permission from Whitehall mandarins to carry out studies on possible rail projects, the Transport Secretary said the situation was the same for London’s transport body.
He said: “Transport for London doesn’t have the power to do that, if you look at the railway lines in the South East, if you look at Thameslink, that is a Department for Transport project, so it is not something that TfL can do.”
He said he expected Northern Powerhouse Rail, a high speed line connecting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, and Hull, to be a Government-funded project.
Henri Murison, Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which represents businesses and civic leaders, said in response: “I am disappointed the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, does not accept we as the North should be able to help fix our own problems by undertaking route studies without having to seek permission.
“We are not asking for new money – just the North to be given control of its own share and so avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy to get things done quicker.”
Keith Wakefield, chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority transport committee and the former leader of Leeds city council, described the Government’s commitment to the North as “long overdue”.
He said: “The imperative is that we do it because everyone is saying in this post-Brexit world, if you are really serious about thriving and growing our economy, the North is absolutely crucial. We are not being treated in the way the South East is being treated.”