Sorry, Tories, but £500m isn’t enough to reverse the Beeching Axe

Richard Beeching. Axe not shown. Image: Getty.

It is, somehow, only a few weeks since the news broke in Pravda – sorry, the Daily Telegraph – that a Conservative government would “banish the shadow of Beeching”, as transport secretary Grant Shapps put it. Yes, it’s Corbyn in neutral, Beeching in reverse, and Britain going forward (CCHQ – you can have this one for free). All for the cost of, er, £500m. Half a billion pounds to reverse Beeching’s axe, which cut thousands of miles of track and associated infrastructure.

This manifesto announcement passed by relatively unnoticed. There were no briefings on its absurdity from Labour or the Lib Dems, meaning it is left to us, the train nerds, to talk about just how ridiculous it is. The costings seem to have been drawn from a hat; it would fail to address the problems that Shapps says have come about a result of the cuts; and if the number of details were the number of daily passengers, Beeching himself would have ripped up the tracks. 

That's because £500m does not buy you a lot of reopened railway. About 25 miles, give or take, according to railway engineer Gareth Dennis. He suggests that reopening railways costs around £20m per mile. Or there’s the cheaper option, converting freight lines into passenger lines. But, as Sim Harris of Railnews points out, you’ve still got to pay for new stations. In summary: “It would cost far more than that to really reverse Beeching.”

Before and after Beeching. Click to expand.

Furthermore, it is not £500m of new money. In fact, just half of it is new cash, pledged for 2020-21, with the other half coming from Network Rail. In a reversal programme, £500m barely gets you the “G” in “Gnihceeb”. 

For context, another programme that would receive £500m – in this case of actual new cash – is the Potholes Fund. And that’s £500m each year for four years, as opposed to the single year outlined in the Conservatives’ spending plan.


The Potholes Fund is something John Major would be proud to announce in his manifesto, albeit with a telephone hotline too. Both policies are concerned with endemic problems in the country’s infrastructure, and both fail to approach the root cause: years of “spending reviews” at cash-strapped local councils which have seen cuts to road maintenance and local bus services. So £500m may get you a bit of railway, but it won’t pay for the joined-up public transport infrastructure necessary to get people to the stations – although it could get you a lot more busses, increasing their frequency and extent.

Unfortunately, the clear problem with the figures doesn’t matter to the core audience of this policy. It’s an announcement for Telegraph-reading Boomers who nostalgically remember when you could take a train just about anywhere, not CityMetric-reading nerds. Of course, they drive now instead of taking the train, hence the potholes fund.

Even if a more sensible spending figure was found, this idea would still face significant problems. In the years since Beeching’s axe, many railways have been re-purposed, as bypass roads and cyclepaths. Sustrans, a walking and cycling charity, opened its first route on an axed railway line between Bristol and Bath converted into a tarmacked path for pedestrians and cyclists. “Rail trails”, as Claude Lynch wrote earlier this year for CityMetric, give people access to green spaces, to a safe car-free zone to become comfortable with cycling, and offer ideal routes for environmentally friendly commutes. What would happen to the heritage railways that have preserved stations and sections of track? And how would new lines connect with HS2? 

That’s all ignoring the elephant in the room as to the operation of the new lines. Who would run them? Would they be electrified? Or would reopened branch lines get handed down “refurbished” Pacers? 

This policy is the equivalent of a Parliamentary train: it’s only of real interest to nerds, it’s the result of lazy politicians, and it is tinged with irrelevant nostalgia. There is a genuine argument to be made in certain cases for lines to be reopened, such as the Portishead to Bristol line. But to claim Beeching’s work can be undone with £500m is ridiculous.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.