“Difficult decisions are now due”: the transport challenges ahead

A high speed train, of the sort Britain will not be seeing any time soon. Image: Getty.

The new chair of the transport select committee on the challenges ahead.

If Chris Grayling’s re-appointment was intended to project an image of steady continuity, the reality for transport in this Parliament is anything but.

Difficult but necessary decisions have been postponed for two elections. They are now due. Coupled with problems on existing programmes, the challenges facing the Department for Transport are significant.

A decision on runway expansion is now critically overdue. A final vote was expected this summer, but all bets are off while the Parliamentary arithmetic remains so fragile. Any further delays would be deeply damaging for both the UK economy and an aviation industry already beset by uncertainty over the possible loss of international landing rights after Brexit.

HS3 – or Northern Powerhouse Rail – has reached the point where it must make the transition from a drawing room blueprint to a properly defined and funded government-backed plan. Official enthusiasm for Crossrail 2 seems to have waned, despite the critical and growing capacity constraints on the London rail network. Grayling’s support for a diesel car scrappage scheme has raised expectations, but the plan may experience Treasury resistance. And, of course, the legislation to extend HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds via the East Midlands is also due in this parliament. 

As new programmes begin, existing projects are slowly unwinding. The DfT and Network Rail committed to a multi-billion pound investment programme without a clear understanding of its costs or deliverability. Important investment programmes, such as main line electrification and freight schemes, are now delayed, over budget, and at risk of cancellation. Maintenance work is now being cut back despite serious safety concerns raised by the regulator and rail workers. Highways England’s Road Investment Strategy – which includes the flawed policy of removing the hard shoulder from motorways – looks set to suffer a similar trajectory.

Every region has a long list of promised or half-promised projects, the delivery of which now looks in doubt. In addition, the new Bus Services Act is about to come into contact with reality for the first time, and it is likely that some operators will fight tooth and nail to defend existing, de-regulated structures. And, as Labour’s frontbench has said, a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy has finally been produced, but there is precious little investment attached, raising serious questions over how the government will meet its target of increasing the share of sustainable transport journeys.


One of the Department for Transport’s most significant tasks has been its management of the rail franchising programme. Political attention has understandably focused on the question of ownership, but the existing franchise model is struggling on its own terms. Operators are exiting the market and the average number of bids is now below the department’s own target for realising value for money. Behind closed doors, it has been acknowledged that the risk of an operator defaulting has risen.

Ministers must make a significant choice. The status quo of direct awards to incumbent operators delivers neither the competition they want nor value for the taxpayer, but the alternative management contract model has failed on such a scale on Southern that it is not a politically viable option. Direct operation, which was successfully employed on East Coast and was championed in the recent Labour manifesto, is probably out of the question under a Conservative administration. And of course, the planned extension of Driver Only Operation – an assumption of future franchise awards – will be more difficult in a hung Parliament, which should lead to a reassessment of the Department’s industrial relations priorities.

Change is needed, but there are dangers associated with the remaining options that need to be taken into account. If a sudden decision was taken to radically change the existing franchise model – such as by auctioning off lucrative intercity access rights, as proposed by the Competition and Markets Authority – then there is a real danger that timetables could become unworkable. The UK’s world class rail supply chain thrives on certainty and contracts without it. With service quality and jobs at stake, effective scrutiny of rail policy will be even more important in this Parliament than in the last.

These are some of the imminent policy decisions facing ministers, but passengers may see things differently. Transport costs are an inflationary pressure on household budgets: regulated rail fares are up by 27 per cent since 2010; bus and air fares have risen by a third.

Proposals from the last parliament to improve travellers’ experiences, from advertising the cheapest available prices at petrol stations to motorway drivers and flexible rail ticketing, are in danger of falling off the agenda. Cuts to bus routes, investment delays arising from Network Rail’s financial difficulties and de-staffing proposals all have a negative effect on disabled passengers. These voices must be represented in the months and years ahead.

With so much going on, it’s welcome that more controversial proposals inherited from the Cameron administration – such as the planned privatisation of the government’s remaining stake in national air traffic control services – look unlikely to be pursued in a hung Parliament. The challenge for backbench scrutiny is to ensure that other important but stalled policy areas, such as updating the antiquated law on taxis and private hire vehicles or level crossing safety, are not left permanently in the ‘too difficult’ box.

As we head into this new and uncertain parliament, the transport agenda is crowded and congested. With no overall majority, effective scrutiny on a cross-party basis has become even more important – but I’m confident that backbenchers can play their part in improving infrastructure and services for passengers, drivers, and all other transport users.

Lilian Greenwood is the Labour MP for Nottingham South, the former shadow transport secretary and the new chair of the transport select committee.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.