The first time I visited Sheffield, David Blunkett was leader of the council and you could go anywhere in south Yorkshire on a bus for a groat. At the same time Ken Livingstone was in charge of London’s transport network and wreaking apoplexy among government ministers by drastically cutting bus and tube fares so that ordinary people could get around the capital.
Halcyon days. Now Mr Blunkett is near the top of the greasy pole and you can’t buy a so-called day saver in Sheffield without taking out a mortgage. As for London’s transport, the best thing we can say is that the jury’s still out and looking for an alternative route to its destination.
And pity the poor people of Colne. There they are, stuck in the Pennines at the end of a railway line so dreadful that no sooner have you got to the shops in Manchester or Leeds than it’s time to go home again. No wonder so few people want to move there.
Cue the standard tirade from old-stagers about the Beeching cuts. Here is a man whose vilification swells as the years go by, so already he’s on a par with Jack the Ripper and Richard III. And indeed the folly of dismantling much of Britain’s rail network is accentuated every time the bill comes in for a new urban tram system.
There’s no doubt that efficient, affordable public transport oils the wheels of the economy in a way few other public interventions can do. Low taxes and tax credits are all well and good, but if we end up blowing the money on motorised gridlock the benefits evaporate sooner than you can say carbon monoxide. If we’re serious about maximising the potential of our regions, we need to accept that unless we want to stock our towns with hermit-like homeworkers who do all their shopping online, we’ve got to make it easier for people to get from A to B - and to all sorts of other places too. Whether you’re investing millions in an enterprise or tens of thousands in a home, these connections are crucial.
So the demand for new tram systems and the resurrection of rail routes won’t go away. Nor will the call for decent and regular buses at affordable prices. But infrastructure is horribly expensive, as Alistair Darling so helpfully keeps reminding us. The mistakes of the past lay not only in the dismantling of existing networks but in decades of under-investment. Have we really learned any lessons? Ask the people of Colne in ten years’ time.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine
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