Johnson promises the North it can take back control… of its railways

Speaking at the annual Convention of the North, Johnson restated his commitment to the stalled Northern Powerhouse project.

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Delivering a speech in Rotherham as part of the annual Convention of the North, Boris Johnson told delegates that it was “time for the North to run its own trains,” pledging to give the region control “over fares, rolling stock and timetables” and “far greater control over budgets”. His promise was reiterated online moments later: “Today I am announcing my intention to give the railways of the North back to the people of the North.”

Currently, most of the North and the whole of the UK’s railway operators are privately owned by a multitude of companies or controlled by foreign state-owned operators such as Arriva, a subsidiary of the state-owned German firm Deutsche Bahn. The Conservative Party have no plans to emulate Labour’s renationalisation plans.

Ingratiating himself with an audience that included Labour majors and the leaders of Labour councils, Johnson said that his position as “the first PM since Clement Atlee to have been mayor,” gave him a unique insight into “the transformative potential of local leadership.”

“We’re going to do devolution properly, maximising the power of the North,” Johnson said, before giving a eulogy to the region’s industrial heritage and its history in the beginnings of rail travel. “Two centuries later, in the birthplace of the railways, we can do so much better,” he told the conference. “Coming from London to Doncaster today took 1.5 hours. But Liverpool to Rotherham, half the distance, takes an hour longer. And it’s often on two-carriage trains that used to be buses.” So-called Pacer trains, repurposed ‘buses-on-rails’, are common in some parts of the UK and have been much criticised in recent years. “I love buses but not when they’re supposed to be trains,” he joked, later claiming that “the Pacers will be gone within months.”

In August, the IPPR think tank published research that showed that the North was going to receive £2,389 less per person to spend on transport than the capital, based on a wide-ranging analysis of planned transport spending. With London set to get £3,636 per head compared with an average of £1,247 for the whole of the North, Yorkshire and the Humber, where Johnson’s speech was delivered, has been allocated planned transport spending of only £511 per head.

In what has been widely interpreted as a pitch for northern votes in traditional Labour – and often Leave-voting – heartlands, Johnson reaffirmed his “commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail” – a  planned high speed rail link between the North West and East coasts, linking the northern cities between the Mersey and the Humber. Also known as HS3, Northern Powerhouse Rail or “Crossrail of the North”, the project has been championed by northern leaders and heads of devolved authorities such as Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram. Some have criticised the proposals for failing to take into account the connectivity of the North East and for being too focused on large North Western urban hubs.

In questions from journalists, Johnson was accused of using a new towns fund to pump money into marginal constituencies in the North. “I’m not aware of any political bias involved in the dispersal of those funds,” Johnson said, adding that it “sounds like pure cynicism,” which prompted laughter from the audience.

Prior to Johnson’s speech, Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, who has attended cabinet since the new PM entered Downing Street, told the hall that leaving the EU represented an “opportunity to reshape our United Kingdom” and that the government would “make sure the North [was] at the heart of a global exporting mission.”

The conference, attended by the metro mayors of city regions and combined authorities, was organised by the NP11, a group representing the 11 northern Local Enterprise Partnerships, which coordinate work between businesses and local authorities.

Jonny Ball is a Special Projects Writer for Spotlight and the New Statesman

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