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4 December 2019updated 14 Jul 2021 9:37am

The Tories want us to think they’ll sort out local transport. But £4.2bn is nothing

By Jonn Elledge

There is an ongoing issue in reporting public spending, which one might term the Big/Small Problem. Some numbers that sound absolutely massive may, in context, be quite small – an extra billion on the NHS, for example, sounds like a lot of money, but in the contest of the £120bn annual health budget is actually sod all.

The Big/Small Problem offers a very useful tool for politicians who want to make it look like they’re addressing a problem when they’re actually not doing anything of the sort. This, I suspect, is exactly what’s going in with the £4.2bn Local Public Transport Fund announced by the Conservatives this morning.

This money, which transport secretary Grant Shapps says would be provided by the Tories’ beneficent decision not to cut corporation tax, would go towards “more frequent and better services, more electrification, modern buses and trains and contactless smart ticketing”. It would “kick start the transformation of services so they match those in London”.

Two things about all this have caused one of my eyebrows to raise so far it’s getting caught in my hair. One is that the government says the money would be available to the eight mayoral or combined authority areas that cover the big English conurbations outside London: the North East, Tees Valley, West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, West Midlands and West of England.

The striking thing here is the inclusion of those words “or combined authority”. In recent years funding of this sort has tended to be on offer to areas with metro mayors only. That, though, would exclude West Yorkshire, which as it happens contains quite a few key marginals. It smells to me like the government is weakening its commitment to mayoralties as a way of generating good headlines in a part of the country that’s electorally useful.

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That, though, is a relatively minor quibble compared to the shameless use of the Big/Small Problem to disguise the fact this fund is, well, not quite the square root of bugger all, but also not a transformational sum of money either. It’s £4.2bn over five years, which works out to £840m a year. To put that in context: the Northern line extension to Battersea, which will add two stations to the tube network, is currently priced at £1.1bn.

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I’m being a bit cheeky here (though admittedly not as cheeky as the government), because of course major transport works tend not to happen in a single year. A better way of critiquing these figures is to note that the funding will be available to eight different city regions. Split the money eight ways and you get – drumroll, please – £525m.

Once again, this is objectively a lot of money and yet also in this specific context not very much at all. Manchester Metrolink’s Second City Crossing, a 1.3km stretch of track across the city centre intended to improve capacity on the tram network, cost £165m all on its own. A second line of the Midlands Metro, which will link Wednesbury and Brierly Hill to the network, will cost £450m, despite the fact it uses a disused rail line. The 14km Edinburgh Tram line cost over £1bn; a 4.6km extension to Newhaven will cost another £207m.

So I don’t want to be too sniffy about how much £525m will buy you – It clearly buys you something. But it’s not going to come even close to sorting out the transport problems of a conurbation like West Yorkshire, said to be the largest urban area in Europe not to have any form of tram or metro network. It’s a fraction of the money you’d need to spend to build a tram network as good as Manchester’s. The idea that it’s enough to get close to a London-style transport network is laughable.

In practice, not every conurbation will get £525m. They’ll have to bid for the money, so some will get more – others may get nothing. But, as with the Tories’ ridiculous claim that a £500m fund will be enough to undo the Beeching axe, this policy isn’t really about transforming transport – as Stephen has noted, buses are a far better way of doing that. Instead, it’s about making it sound like a Conservative government will invest in parts of the country that are desperate for it, even though it almost certainly won’t. Anyone would think there’s an election on.