Westminster’s failure to build public transport in Leeds will be a disaster for Londoners

Briggate, Leeds, 2010. Note the lack of tram. Image: MTaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

The Leeds Supertram bill was first discussed in the House of Commons in 1991. I was six years old. The UK economy was three times the size of China’s. The first new buildings at Canary Wharf had not yet been completed, and debates to extend the Jubilee line there were just beginning.

Today China’s economy is well over three times the size of the UK’s. Canary Wharf has new tube stations and light rail stations. Its new Crossrail station will open in 2018.

There is still no tram in Leeds. It is the largest city in the EU with no mass transport system. Its twin city of Lille, very similar in many ways, has two metro lines, two tram lines, and international high-speed rail connections. Leeds has nothing.

Click to expand.

How did we get here?

In the 1990s, the Conservative government told Leeds to get started with supertram and promised money. The money never came.

When Labour came to power the governmet put a freeze on new infrastructure projects, and forced Leeds to re-work and reduce its proposal and re-apply.

The proposed map of the network. 

In 2005 the government cancelled the scheme completely and told Leeds that it could not proceed with any tram or light-rail project. Leeds was told to rework the tram system as a trolleybus.

Work continued through a coalition government until May 2016, when a public inquiry reported and the Department for Transport blocked Leeds from proceeding with the scheme. There are some good reasons and many bad reasons why Leeds must now start again with its ambitions to build a public transport scheme. I won’t discuss them here. Instead I’ll discuss the people who will suffer most from this failure.

Londoners will suffer

Leeds is projected to be Britain’s fastest growing city in the coming decades. It is one of the UK’s only cities that is planning not just to meet but to exceed its housing requirements. It is hungry and ready to retain the talent and generate the growth that currently leaves the North of England and fills up London.


For decades Leeds’ ambitions have been held back by congestion. I have lived and worked in London, Paris, Hanoi, Birmingham, and Leeds. Commuting in Leeds is the worst of all five. Congestion restricts and separates economic activity into small pockets of the city more than anywhere else I know.

Now, without the prospect of a public transport system any time soon, Leeds’ ambitions will be curtailed for further decades. Planning applications in outer Leeds will be refused because of congestion. Brownfield redevelopments in central Leeds will have to be built at a lower density for the same reason. More of the Northern, European, and global talent that calls Leeds home and that doesn’t want to live in London will reluctantly move south. People who do want to live in London will have to pay even more rent to compete with them for limited space. The UK’s economy will suffer. Our housing crisis will deepen.

Leeds and its neighbours were the original modern cities. We are desperate to continue our rebirth as modern European cities. We have worked with the UK government for 25 years to build a public transport system. Our resoundingly re-elected local government has planned a system and is now willing to pay for it itself. We are blocked from doing so.

Leeds will be fine. We will remain the UK’s best city for open data. We will still grow, just more slowly. But the growth and the ambition that we cannot now accommodate will spill over to London, a city that does not want to grow. House prices will rise, living standards will fall, and more money will need to be sent north to support an NHS and education system that our stunted economy cannot pay for itself.

 
 
 
 

Tatton MP Esther McVey thinks Leeds is south of Birmingham for some reason

Great hair, though: Esther McVey. Image: Getty.

Earlier this morning, while everyone was focused on the implosion of the Labour party, former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey decided it was the perfect moment to promote her campaign against High Speed 2.

A quick reminder of the route of the proposed high speed rail link. Phase One will run from London to Birmingham. Should Phase Two ever go ahead, it will split just beyond Birmingham to create a y-shaped network, with one arm running to Manchester and the other to Leeds.

The map McVey tweeted this morning suggests that she doesn't know this. But that is, at worst, the seventh worst thing about the map, because, look:

Let’s look at that a big more closely:

Yep. How many things are wrong with it? Let’s count.

1) Manchester is not east of Leeds;

2) Leeds is not south of Birmingham;


3) Both Manchester and Leeds are further from London than Birmingham, rather than, as this map suggests, closer;

4) To get from London to Manchester you kind of have to pass Birmingham, Esther;

5) There is no railway line that runs from London to Leeds to Birmingham because that would be a really stupid way round, what with Leeds being quite a long way north of Birmingham;

6) Should the government decide to boost the north by scrapping Hs2 and improving east-west lines instead, those improved east-west lines will not cross the proposed route of HS2 Phase One because they are quite a long way to the north of it.

Okay I'm going to stop there and get back to staring at the flaming bin fire that we loving call the Labour party. But for the record, Esther: I'm not taking advice on transport policy from anyone who doesn't know where Leeds is.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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