Scrapping of Rail Electrification

If I’m going to see things coming a mile off I wish they were lottery numbers and not politically-related things. Once again, something I predicted a while ago has come to fruition, namely the scrapping of rail electrification between Sheffield and London.

Back in February when I was discussing Pacer trains I mused:

“From watching last night’s Look North I understand that these trains may only be a short-term solution in themselves. The much-discussed electrification of the lines in this region would require fresh stock in a few years so, essentially, these trains would be another stopgap. Now, I know that the electrification issue is as hilarious as the promised replacement of the Pacer trains for the last twenty years but, for a moment, let’s take them at their word and accept that the intended electrification will happen.

Why not rush the electrification through as soon as possible then upgrade the stock from then on? At the risk of banging my old drum, let’s prioritise that above wasting money on HS2. If they’re really serious about investing in transport infrastructure in the north then why not?”

I can only assume that the vanity project of HS2 is still more important to the government than sustainable, affordable, useful transport links between the North and South. Network Rail’s spending plans are being curtailed by the fact they now show up on the government balance sheets. Why do ministers still refuse to see what’s staring them in the face? The cost/benefit ratio of HS2 was plunging towards negative figures last time they condescended to give us detail on it. HS2 is going to create a much bigger black hole in the public finances and seemingly won’t have much benefit. Rail electrification, on other hand, has tangible benefits and wouldn’t take forever and a day to complete.

The fact that I saw this coming doesn’t help. In fact, it just irritates me more. We’ve been promised proper electrification for years and we get this mess instead. So much for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, eh?

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Didn’t We Reject Elected Mayors Once Already?

Only one week into the new government and devolution is on the agenda again. And, once more, it’s sub-standard, based on what Westminster think will work with no regard to the reality of life anywhere north of the M25. A Cities Devolution Bill will apparently be included in the Queen’s Speech and will talk about the kind of city-based devolution that London-centric politicians seem to favour. It still irritates me as much as it ever did.

For a start, a precondition of these devolution deals will be the cities involved accepting an elected mayor. Let’s focus on West Yorkshire again as it’s my stomping ground. Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford all rejected the idea of elected mayors in 2012. Now, however, if we want any sort of regional powers we’re going to be lumbered with something we voted against. That’s democratic, isn’t it? Peter Box, both the Labour leader of Wakefield Council and the chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said this to the BBC: “We have been told if we want more devolution an elected mayor is the only option and clearly there’s a decision to be made on whether we remain as we are with the devolution we’ve been given already, or seek to gain more devolution.” Westminster arrogance has lost its power to acutely stun me but being forced to accept an elected mayor alongside whatever they condescend to offer us (whether it’s right for Yorkshire or not) is beyond arrogant. Peter Box thinks that any devolution is better than none? I’m not sure I agree. The wrong type of devolution can take power further from the people. Embedding it into a Leeds City Region would do nothing for the people of Wakefield.

Which brings me to my next sticking point. The BBC are covering these proposals quite comprehensively. In a third article on their site yesterday on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ they raised quite a few interesting points. One quote, from Tom Forth, an associate at ODILeeds positively infuriated me:

“To win business and public investment, I too often have to go to London…It’s insane. Each city in the North is too small to fight against that. We can only drag some of that investment northwards if we work together. If the people of Wigan, Pontefract and County Durham are better off commuting to Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Newcastle then that’s what has to happen. So many young people in those places currently leave. A Northern Powerhouse gives them an option to stay.”

Okay… Where do I start? Yes, we need to work together. But it’s positively offensive to say that the only option for people in Pontefract is to commute to Leeds and that we should be happy with that. This is exactly why I loathe the idea of city regions: if you focus growth and effort on one central place then everything on the periphery just falls away. I mean, why bother trying to attract businesses and culture to Pontefract or other small towns when the people will just go to Leeds? And then the fact that Pontefract is suffering will just be batted back with the idea that you shouldn’t invest money in an area that has no hope when you could give more to Leeds that is thriving and making use of it. I hasten to add that I’m only using Pontefract as my example here because it was mentioned in the above piece and is nice and close to me. I know a bit about Pontefract. Which is, I’m sure, more than be said for most of the Westminster elite making these decisions.

No doubt I’ll be discussing this further in the coming weeks and months. I’m glad of one thing though: devolution is on the agenda. Even if it’s a highly-selective agenda.

Danger for The Orangery

I read with alarm last week that Beam, the arts charity which has been running The Orangery for years, have decided to stop running events out of the site at Easter and will pull out entirely when their lease runs out next year. I’m very far from blaming Beam for this – they’ve done a brilliant job and can no longer maintain the costs of the building on their own. They’re currently in talks with the council to resolve the issue and I truly hope some sort of resolution can be found.

The Orangery is not only a beautiful building but Beam have made it into an arts hub and, really, more of a community hub. Though I didn’t attend their outdoor screenings of films last summer, it was a pleasure to walk past and see so many people in the grounds enjoying themselves. I’ve attended a few events there now and I found it a brilliant atmosphere to read work in during the Lit Fest last September.

Of course, Wakefield Council is under financial pressure. Every council across the country is struggling in one way or another. However, in the Wakefield Express this week representatives were proudly trumpeting the demolition of Rutland Mill to make way for a public square. This is on top of various regeneration projects at the other end of town, including the utterly ridiculous idea to turn the old police station on Wood Street into a luxury hotel. That’s a rant for another day, though I will say that people are far more likely to visit the luxury hotel that Bretton Hall will be transformed into shortly rather than one in the centre of Wakefield where they will no doubt get lost in the one-way system before managing to find it. The regeneration of the Civic Gateway is, in some respects, vital. The old court building, now bought back from the developers who allowed it to fall into disrepair, is incredibly important to fix what has become a blight on Wood Street in recent years. Even so, I don’t think all this regeneration should take precedence over The Orangery and the very good work Beam does there.

So, to return to this regeneration of Rutland Mill – fine for a future project, but how about we hasten those plans (are there still plans or have they fallen by the wayside?) to regenerate the old Wakefield Westgate station car park into a public space which would lead up to The Orangery and provide a gorgeous accompaniment to the Westgate Chapel. Both The Orangery and the chapel have been isolated to an extent by the construction of Mulberry Way and the new train station. Creating this green space rapidly could have a knock-on effect at The Orangery – it’s a lovely place for a wedding or an event in itself but incorporate an expansive public space into the equation and it could be outstanding. One way to help The Orangery is to redevelop the grubby area outside of it. That counts as regeneration – so what’s the problem?

Yorkshire First Wakefield Branch Meeting – This Thursday

It’s rude to eavesdrop, but it’s not such a crime for a conversation to catch your ear when it’s conducted rather loudly. I was in a cafe on Saturday and a group of men in their 60s/70s were discussing politics at the next table. Some of the things they were saying really resonated, reaffirming my belief that lots of people in this part of the country have the same attitudes towards the North/South mess we’re embroiled in.

They were talking about Boris Johnson and how he thinks the country stops at Watford. Well, yes. As they went on to say, London may be the capital, but that doesn’t mean it’s the be-all and end-all. The rest of us have got something to offer. The next recipient of their vitriol was HS2 – they seem completely unconvinced that it’ll ever make it up to Leeds and will actually do what it’s meant to do (that is, benefit the North of England if you’ve forgotten – I know I had). The overall opinion of these men seemed to be that decisions were being made by people in London who ‘don’t understand’ the North.

If I’d been a little braver I would’ve started up a conversation, but that’s an odd thing to do randomly in one of your favourite cafes. However, it has convinced me that the members of Yorkshire First are definitely not talking to an empty room. We’re on the same page as a lot of people and we’re talking sense.

So, with that in mind, if anybody fancies getting a little more involved with us, the next Wakefield Branch Meeting will be held at The Holmfield Arms on Thursday 5th March at 7pm. All welcome, even if you don’t know how deeply you want to be involved in the campaign. We’ve got a chance to make a difference in two months and show the mainstream parties that their benevolent view of devolution and what’s best for us really won’t do.

A Replacement for Pacer Trains?

The plan to refit former London Underground trains and sell them to the operators bidding for the northern franchise has caused a little consternation. They’re being offered as a replacement for the Pacer trains that are cramped, cold and were supposed to be a ‘temporary’ solution when they were introduced in the 1980s. These refitted tube trains are allegedly a third cheaper than building new ones, with the shells of the carriages kept and everything else refurbished. The idea is that no one will know these trains were once on the District Line, but it still feels like Yorkshire is inheriting aged rolling stock from London while they can get shiny new trains for their routes.

From watching last night’s Look North I understand that these trains may only be a short-term solution in themselves. The much-discussed electrification of the lines in this region would require fresh stock in a few years so, essentially, these trains would be another stopgap. Now, I know that the electrification issue is as hilarious as the promised replacement of the Pacer trains for the last twenty years but, for a moment, let’s take them at their word and accept that the intended electrification will happen.

Why not rush the electrification through as soon as possible then upgrade the stock from then on? At the risk of banging my old drum, let’s prioritise that above wasting money on HS2. If they’re really serious about investing in transport infrastructure in the north then why not?

Still All About Cities

I’ve only read the snippets of news about the UK Devolution Summit, summed up by this article in The Independent. However, my initial thoughts reflected my usual ones about central government’s concept of devolution – they mention ‘regions’ but, really, it’s all about the cities. Of course, the report they’re basing discussions on was commissioned by ten cities (the Core City Group) which straight away skews the findings in favour of city regions and city mayors; all that stuff that Westminster seem to think will work brilliantly up here. I wish they’d spend some time talking to us about it instead of pressing on regardless.

The phrase the Independent article highlights is ‘city states’. That makes me cringe. I say repeatedly that I don’t want Wakefield to become any more of a satellite to Leeds than we already are. It feels like we’re finally starting to come out of their shadow in terms of culture etc and I can just see that being reversed by a resurgence of the Leeds-centric attitude that permeates this area. I wonder if people in Rotherham feel the same about Sheffield, as much as I love the latter.

A ‘proper’ devolution deal shouldn’t have to ‘generously’ give power to cities. They shouldn’t be aiming for ‘powerhouse’ cities, as I discussed in this post in November, but for powerful regions. Yorkshire is a cohesive community. We’ve got our differences, yes, and that’s what makes every town unique, but we all fit together rather well. The rest of us aren’t merely extensions of the major cities, destined to pick around for the scraps of funding and decision-making left over. Or, that is, we shouldn’t be.

Musings on Elected Mayors for ‘Northern Powerhouses’

Ever get the feeling politicians aren’t listening? Sorry, sorry, stupid question. This post could last forever if I go into detail on every single thing. My main criticism today is this plan for an elected mayor of Greater Manchester which emerged yesterday.

Two years ago, Manchester and many other cities around the country (Wakefield included) said no to an elected mayor in referendums. Only Bristol wanted one and I’m not sure how that’s worked out for them. Nevertheless, yesterday George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have an elected mayor, probably from 2017 onwards. Admittedly, it’s a slightly different proposal than the one previously offered but it’s still an elected mayor and the people of the Manchester area seem to be getting no choice in the matter.

The fact that the leaders of the ten councils affected have agreed to the proposals is worrying in itself. In my experience, politicians only vote for something which is good for politicians (side note: all the council leaders in this area seem to be white men) and I hear dissent is already coming from areas like Trafford.

For me, I suppose, it’s about the concentration of power and the guzzling up of resources. If – as seems likely if Greater Manchester is deemed a success – the experiment was replicated in other areas of the North, there is no prize for guessing what would happen. Power concentrates into one single area. Wakefield already suffers from this with the number of West Yorkshire initiatives centred on Leeds. A ‘Greater Leeds’ area would inevitably take in Wakefield. Not only are we their closest neighbour but as far as transport links etc go, we are fundamental to any success in terms of joined-up policy. Now, personally, I’m sick of being lumped in with Leeds. Wakefield is on its way to thriving again (despite the best efforts of our council to hamper such progress) and I don’t want us to become an outpost of a ‘Northern powerhouse’. Every city and town in the North should be considered its own powerhouse.

So I dislike the prospect of linking areas together with little regard for their individuality. However, I do favour more regional devolution based on assemblies rather than the concentration of power in one person in one area. Only this way can cities like Wakefield get decent representation alongside their more statuesque neighbours (as an aside I DO NOT agree with Labour’s regional senate proposals but that’s an argument for another day).

On the one hand, I appreciate the government finally recognising that the North needs to be seen as something other than ‘not the South East’. On the other, these decisions are so important that I don’t want George Osborne agreeing to them with a bunch of white, mostly middle-aged men, who I suspect don’t have the best interests of their areas at heart.