Autumn budget 2021: Regional mayors welcome £6.9bn spending boost for local transport – but warned of HS2 ‘sting in the tail’
England’s regional mayors have welcomed a £6.9bn spending boost for local transport – but they are also being warned of a “massive sting in the tail” to come from Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
At next week’s budget and spending review, Mr Sunak is expected to announce £5.7bn will be put into transport settlements for city regions, as well as £1.2bn of new funding for bus services.
The Treasury is promising the cash will boost productivity through train and station upgrades and the expansion of tram networks in cities outside of London.
The funding appears to be a victory for Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who has been campaigning for government money to help create a London-style transport service for his city region.
However, a former government infrastructure tsar has accused Mr Sunak of putting “the good news before the bad news” as they predicted the chancellor would also scrap a major part of the HS2 rail project and scale down other big infrastructure schemes.
As part of the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements, £1.07bn will be allocated for projects in Greater Manchester, £830m for West Yorkshire, £570m for South Yorkshire, £1.05bn for the West Midlands, £310m for Tees Valley, £540m for the West of England, and £710m for the Liverpool city region.
Mr Burnham welcomed an “important first step” towards a London-style transport system for Greater Manchester and said the government was “listening to the case” that his city region was making.
But the Labour politician added that “infrastructure investment alone will not make levelling up feel real to the people of Greater Manchester – that will only happen when the frequency and coverage of bus services are increased and fares are lowered to London levels”.
Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, hailed the “largest single transport sum we have ever received” and promised “some truly game-changing schemes” such as more Metro lines and train stations, new bus routes and electric vehicle charging points.
His fellow Tory regional politician, Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, said the cash was “another example” of the government’s commitment to being “serious about levelling up”.
He promised that “every part of our transport network in the region will be touched, with our critical practical schemes such as major station renovation and road improvements sitting alongside funding for more innovative projects like low-emission vehicles and smart traffic lights”.
The Treasury said the local settlements will enable projects such as new carriages for Greater Manchester’s Metrolink, an expansion of tram networks in South Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and battery packs for Merseyrail trains to extend its network.
And Mr Sunak’s department is also promising the £1.2bn pot for bus services will improve infrastructure, fares and services outside of London through the delivery of integrated fares and ticketing, as well as extra services and new bus priority measures to speed up journeys.
Those places benefiting from the money will be selected in the coming months, according to the Treasury.
“Great cities need great transport and that is why we’re investing billions to improve connections in our city regions as we level up opportunities across the country,” Mr Sunak said.
“There is no reason why somebody working in the North and Midlands should have to wait several times longer for their bus or train to arrive in the morning compared to a commuter in the capital.
“This transport revolution will help redress that imbalance as we modernise our local transport networks so they are fit for our great cities and those people who live and work in them.”
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However, former Labour transport secretary Lord Adonis – who went on to lead the UK National Infrastructure Commission under David Cameron and Theresa May – forecast that Mr Sunak’s announcement of local transport funding would come before the scrapping of the eastern leg of HS2 between Birmingham and Leeds.
He told Sky News: “The truth is the government is announcing a pretty good deal for local transport because they think all politics is local and having bus schemes, local train and local tram schemes is going to be popular.
“And I welcome that because we do need much better local transport and we particularly need it in the Midlands and the North so it’s more like London.
“However, what they’re not announcing now is the massive sting in the tail which is the cancellation of the eastern leg of HS2 and a big scaling down of the project to link up the northern cities from Liverpool and Manchester, through to Bradford and Leeds and then Newcastle in the north of England.”
Lord Adonis added the “big, strategic, backbone” transport infrastructure schemes were “just as important” as local schemes “if we’re going to level up this country properly”.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said: “If ministers were serious about ensuring towns and cities of the North are better connected, they’d be delivering to HS2 to Leeds and Northern Powerhouse Rail.
“Both these projects are critical to addressing the climate crisis and transforming the economies of the North and Midlands.
“If ministers go back on their word, communities will feel rightly betrayed.”
Earlier this month, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps signalled the eastern leg of HS2 could be scrapped in favour of other transport spending as he spoke of how the government should “not blindly follow some plan invented 15 to 20 years ago which no longer benefits people”.
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