If Manchester is allowed to run its own transport system, surely other cities should get those powers too?
It was an argument that the shadow minister for transport, Lilian Greenwood, repeated several times as she debated with Patrick McLoughlin, the secretary of state for transport, and Mike Thornton, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, during the Guardian’s Big Transport Debate on 3 March.
The need for UK major cities to have an integrated transport system such as London’s has been a recurrent theme of the Guardian’s year-long Big Transport Debate project, which culminated in last week’s debate between the three main parties at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in Westminster.
Debating at the Guardian’s Big Transport Debate, from left, was Mike Thornton, Lilian Greenwood, Patrick McLoughlin, and Gwyn Topham. Photograph: Anna Gordon for the Guardian
Greenwood said the announcement last November by chancellor George Osborne, that Greater Manchester will get powers to plan and fund a transport system that integrates bus and rail services, was only a first step. She said there needs to be a change to bus and rail franchising across Britain to allow public sector involvement.
She added: “If we want to see integration and effective investment in smart ticketing [like London’s Oyster card] we need to support planners with more powers and funding, including advanced powers to tender bus services,” Greenwood said. “If it’s good enough for Manchester, as George Osborne seems to believe, it’s good enough for the rest of the country too.”
She said buses are a lifeline for cities and towns, yet over the past five years 1,300 bus routes have been cut, passenger numbers have dropped, and bus and train fares have risen 25%, while the government has cut its funding by 17% in three years. “There’s an urgent need to look at buses,” she said. “In lots of places there is no competition, and where there is competition it’s only on highly profitable routes. Labour wants to do something about that.”
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She said the public sector should be able to run franchises in rail services as well, and pointed to the reprivatisation last month of the East coast mainline from London to Edinburgh, which has been operated by a government company, Directly Operated Railways, since 2009.
Greenwood said Directly Operated Railways was the only rail operator that had decreased ticket prices in real terms. “Here we had a successful, British-owned operator that wasn’t even allowed to compete to run its own services, as any other state operator could have … That’s why, in the first 100 days of a Labour government we would launch a review of franchising and start the process of legislating for a public sector operator.”
McLoughlin staunchly defended his government’s track record on investment in rail infrastructure, however. The coalition government funded the £50bn HS2 from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, which has cross-party consensus. It plans to invest £38bn over the next five years on the railways, including the completion of Crossrail, the east-west rail line across London, which will be the biggest transport infrastructure project in Europe.
McLoughlin also pointed to the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises announced last month for a HS3 rail line linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull. “When you look at the invitations to tender in these franchises, they are encouraging, exciting and challenging for the franchise industry,” he said. “I do find it surprising that Labour is attacking franchising … They relied on it for 13 years. We saw the growth in rail numbers for 13 years. What we now need to do is ensure that passengers are first and foremost in the minds of the franchise companies.”
However, McLoughlin skirted the issue of bus franchises when the moderator, Guardian transport correspondent Gwyn Topham, asked what the panelists would do specifically about delivering better bus services outside London. McLoughlin focused on a new £4m scheme by the Department for Transport to fund “total transport” solutions in rural communities, giving grants to local authorities to link up buses with community-generated forms of transport.
Thornton said the Liberal Democrats wanted to see integrated transport systems in cities, enabled by smart ticketing schemes, which could also allow for variable fares for groups such as 16-21-year-olds. He said his party’s policy was to ensure greater access to poorly served people, such as disabled people and those living in rural areas, and that a Lib Dem government would create a dedicated cycling fund, amounting to 3% of the transport budget, to improve cycling infrastructure.
“Our aim is to make sure that whatever physical state you are in, wherever you live, that you get to go where you want to go and back again, and we want to make it as green as possible,” Thornton said.
The Guardian big transport debate and reception
No one disagreed with that, and much of the debate was marked by consensus rather than division – even on HS2.
Asked by Topham whether they would continue to back HS2 even if it was “deal-breaker” to forging an alliance with Ukip or the Greens, who both oppose it, in a hung parliament, Greenwood and McLoughlin both said their parties’ support was unwavering. Thornton could not comment as he is on the HS2 select committee.
As for the most contentious transport issue of all – whether new airport expansion in the south-east should go to Heathrow or Gatwick – the fact that the Airports Commission’s final recommendation won’t be published until June has kicked that issue into the long grass.
Thornton went furthest, saying Liberal Democrats at the last party conference had voted against any more runway capacity in the south-east, while McLoughlin defended the delayed report by commending the “thorough and proper job” being done by the commission, led by Sir Howard Davies.
Greenwood said it was because of the contentiousness of large infrastructure projects that Labour has promised it would quickly establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission, tasked with identifying the country’s long-term infrastructure needs and monitoring plans to meet them.
“Having a National Infrastructure Commission doesn’t take away the responsibility of politicians to take difficult decisions,” Greenwood said. “But it makes it easier for us to build political consensus over things that are difficult, just as we did over HS2.”