NORTHERN RAIL: ARE THE TORIES SERIOUS ?

 

AWKWARD TIMES AT MANCHESTER CONFERENCE.

The May government is rattled by the growing perception that they are not serious about the Northern Powerhouse. So, it perhaps would have been easier for the Conservatives to be meeting in their other conference city, Birmingham. The city has been confirmed as the UK candidate for the 2022 Commonwealth Games following the election of a Tory West Midlands mayor. In Greater Manchester we elected Andy Burnham who has expressed his outrage at the decision to downgrade the electrification of the Leeds-Manchester rail line whilst giving the go ahead to Crossrail 2 in London.

We know the government is rattled because last week I was present at a meeting in Manchester where the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, came out fighting over his government’s transport spending. He told a startled business audience that he was going to slay some myths and rattled off a whole series of road improvements from Cumbria to Cheshire before tackling rail. His argument seems to be that electrification could be an old hat solution and bi-modal trains with state of the art technology could be the answer.

The issue is sure to come up at a conference where the Tories are reeling on many fronts. Whereas I saw Jeremy Corbyn lauded at every turn in Brighton for losing the General Election, Theresa May comes to Manchester having “won” but with the worst Conservative campaign in living memory. The Tories are past masters at preventing unrest breaking out on the conference floor but there is sure to be some raking over of the General Election coals at the fringe meetings.

Europe will also be an issue to watch at the Manchester conference. The prospect of us effectively being in the European Union until 2021 has angered the hardline Brexiteers. There will be plenty of them in Manchester Central. The Tory activists who come to conference have always been very Eurosceptic.

Besides the Northern Powerhouse, the poor election campaign and Europe, the main challenge for the Tories this weekend will be to answer the growing opposition to austerity and cuts. Labour is shamelessly promising everything to everyone, even acknowledging that if they came to power there could well be a massive run on the pound. Nevertheless, they seem to have caught a tide of opinion against pay curbs, high rents and homelessness. The Tories’ austerity programme has been in place for over seven years now and people are fed up. There are some signs that ministers are recognising this but that can spell danger. Small concessions don’t necessarily assuage the anger. They can make matters worse as workers take industrial action to push for more and the uncertain tone from ministers gives the impression that the government is running out of ideas and is past its sell by date.

Jeremy Corbyn said in Brighton that he was a Prime Minister in waiting. It was a bold, some would say fanciful claim, but if the Cabinet infighting over Europe doesn’t stop, if the cracks are on display in Manchester, there can be no certainty over what might happen this winter.

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THE UNACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT

 

RAIL BETRAYAL.

Since Parliament has gone into recess, hardly a day has passed without a significant policy announcement by ministers. They’ve ranged from banning petrol driven cars by 2040, to transport announcements that have the potential to drain the Northern Powerhouse (NP) of any meaning.

With MPs, away from Westminster and unable to call the government immediately to account, elected mayors and council leaders across the North have had to promise a summit in late August. Let’s hope that the current angry mood will not have turned to dull resignation.

The betrayal by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is breath-taking. He has rowed back on plans for new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly station, said “bi-mode” trains will do on the Manchester-Leeds line rather than full electrification and downgraded rail schemes in Cumbria. At the same time the government announced their support for a £30bn Crossrail 2 project in London.

A few weeks ago, I challenged the chair of Transport for the North (TFN) John Cridland at a major conference on transport about the Treasury rules that will always mean that London schemes meet investment criteria because of the millions of commuters compared to the needs of the North. Cridland remained optimistic and TFN were urged by Manchester City Region mayor Andy Burnham to persuade the government to look at other criteria for justifying transport spending like economic return.

I said in a blog a few weeks ago that the acid test of the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse would be whether Crossrail 2 or Trans Pennine investment would come first. Well now we know.

The whole Northern Powerhouse project is in serious trouble. Good connectivity between northern cities is the bedrock of the whole scheme. The new NP Minister, Rossendale MP Jake Berry is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile Business Secretary Greg Clarke made his industrial strategy speech on investment in battery power in Birmingham this week. Ever since Theresa May came to power there has been a pivot from the North to the Midlands.

Let’s hope the summit backed by all the northern cities at the end of next month gets some answers from ministers.

EMPLOYMENT TRIBUNAL BLOW FOR BIZ.

 

It is always a shame when people abuse employment rights. But that was why the Coalition government brought in fees to deter vexatious employees and chancers who were taking employers to tribunals in droves. In 2012/13 191,541 cases were lodged before fees were levied. The latest figure is 88,000 which is high enough and by the way, fees were often reimbursed if the grievance was genuine.

Small businesses are set to be hardest hit as claims from aggrieved employees soar again. With Brexit uncertainty as well, it is not a good time to be in business.

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GOVERNMENT DECEPTION OVER RAIL PLANS

WHEN DID MINISTERS KNOW?

Questions remain unanswered about the decision to “pause” the electrification of the rail line from Leeds to Manchester. Passengers facing the prospect of overcrowded and slow trains between these major cities well into the next decade deserve to know how they were deceived in the run up to the election. We all deserve to know because connectivity is meant to be at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.

The people who should be answering the questions have gone to ground. I listened to an excellent report on our rail problems recently. It was BBC Radio Four’s File On Four produced in Salford. They were investigating the Leeds-Manchester fiasco along with the recent chaos at London Bridge and the fact that new trains can’t be used at Bristol Temple Meads because the carriages are too long not to scrape on the curved platform. About ten times the reporter, Allan Urry, had to say nobody had been prepared to face his questions.

In relation to the decision not to go ahead with the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester rail line, some interesting facts are emerging which appear to show that Ministers and rail chiefs knew fine well before the General Election that the project wasn’t going ahead.

There has been a long running war of words between Network Rail (NR) and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) which approves all NR’s investment plans. Before he moved to head up HS2 in the spring of last year, NR’s Chief Executive David Higgins was scathing about ORR’s approach of requiring him to do far more for far less money. Last year Higgins claimed NR was being asked “to deliver too much, too quickly” and the prospect of achieving ORR’s targets was “unrealistic.” So I doubt if David Higgins was surprised when the Transport Secretary paused the electrification.

We now move forward to last September when NR’s inability to deliver became clearer. Transport for Greater Manchester have told a source of mine that the franchise invitation to tenders were delayed by two months once the Department for Transport and Rail North (a body of councils and MPs) became aware of NR’s difficulty. Bidders were instructed to assume that TransPennine electrification would not be completed during the franchise term of TransPennine Express and Northern Rail. This indicates that a year ago Network Rail were saying that the train companies should assume that rail electrification would not take place until around 2024 when bidding for their franchise renewals.

Now can I introduce you to the little known MP for Harrogate, Andrew Jones. He used to chair the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s Electrification Task Force which has now had a spectacular power failure. Its purpose was to advise McLoughlin on how schemes could be accelerated. Andrew Jones biography on the Department of Transport website says he provided “advice on the next steps for electrification of railways in the North of England”.

So are we to assume that Mr Jones didn’t advise McLoughlin in March that electrification wasn’t going to happen when he was chairing a task force with the specific purpose of advising on electrification? Mr Jones has now been promoted to a junior ministerial position in the Department of Transport.

I’ve given Patrick McLoughlin a lot of stick in this blog so I leave you with a suggestion that has been made to me. The government may be looking at a vastly more ambitious tunnel option instead of electrifying the existing line. If so, why don’t they level with us?

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