Devolution is spreading. It has become the new shibboleth, an old concept that has been revived and now has become one of the key aspects of government policy promoted enthusiastically by the Chancellor, George Osborne. Devolution was the cornerstone of Nicola Shaw’s report on the structure of the industry and is now the subject of negotiations and indeed considerable controversy around the country in places as far afield as Cornwall, East Anglia and Manchester.
The Cities and Local Government Act became law in January but now the horsetrading over the nature and boundaries of the new devolved bodies is taking place. This has enormous implications for transport and the railways in particular as these new bodies, like the combined transport authorities (the former passenger transport authorities) in the metropolitan areas like Tyne & Wear and Merseyside, could be given powers to franchise out services and commission new schemes.
The trouble with devolution in relation to transport is that journeys are undertaken with little thought of boundaries between different local authority areas. Consequently, there is always the problem of who, precisely, to devolve to. As I wrote in Rail 793 in relation to London, it is very difficult to know how to divide up powers between central government and the various layers of local government. I mentioned, too, the conundrum over boundaries. Giving Transport for London control of suburban services that never leave the capital’s boundary is one thing, but then handing over services that stretch into deepest Kent or Surrey has proved highly controversial.
The issue outside London is even more acute because few people see themselves as living in the areas to which powers are being devolved, such as Anglia or Solent, and the boundaries are far more fluid. Take the Bristol region where there is big row going on between the various local authorities over a promised £1bn Osborne has promised over the next 30 years. While that may not sound like a huge sum of money as it only represents £30m per year, the guaranteed flow of money would be enough to unblock progress on several major rail schemes in the area such as the MetroWest project to provide half hourly services on all Bristol commuting routes.
The new metro mayor would take over powers on transport, housing and job creation from the existing four local authorities – Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset. It is, in effect, the recreation of the old Avon County Council abolished by the Tories in 1996, but which has not become one of the Tory Chancellor’s pet projects. It is rather like an episode from Yes Minister when Sir Humphrey persuades his minister that he must vote for a particular bill only to change his mind when he discovers that it is politically expedient to do the opposite.
Just as in the TV sitcom, not surprisingly some of the local Tory MPs are up in arms about the scheme, and see it as an attempt by Bristol, where it has both Tory and Labour support, to expand its boundaries rather like Russia’s Crimean adventure. MPs like Liam Fox, who represents North Somerset are fundamentally opposed as he recently explained: ‘If we want devolution, let’s devolve down to existing democratic local government structures. We do not need another layer imposed on top of us, especially where our local authorities are working so well together.’ Well, for a start here has long been antagonism between the old Avon councils because of their disparate nature – the clue is in the names like South Gloucestershire and North Somerset which are rural areas that happen to adjoin Bristol. However, transport, in particular, needs to be run at a level large enough to encompass the whole travel to work area, which is why the existing Combined Authorities have been successful in developing schemes in their areas. Interestingly, George Ferguson the current mayor of Bristol who has worked hard to introduce sustainable transport policies, is enormously supportive of the scheme, arguing that it was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ to bring the city into line with its bigger rivals such as Manchester and Birmingham.
In East Anglia, the local Tory opposition is even more strident. There the plan is to create a mayor over what has been termed locally as the ‘Eastern Powerhouse’ encompassing Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Most local authorities favour the idea but Conservative dominated Cambridgeshire, having voted overwhelmingly against, is opposed as are some local Tory MPs such as Henry Bellingham, who has likened the suggestion to the appointment of a gauleiter (a regional Nazi official).
In Hampshire, there is a strong desire in the south of the country to create a new Solent authority which would include the major conurbations of Portsmouth and Southampton while north Hampshire has no interest in the idea. The big idea for the new authority is a tram scheme linking the two cities, a far more ambitious idea than the original tram scheme that was turned down by Alistair Darling when he was transport secretary in the mid noughties. That is precisely the sort of example that supporters of devolution cite as why it is the best option.
However, all these plans are being delayed and risk being shelved because of the political furore they engender. In the past, devolution of transport decisions has, in general, led to increased investment in rail as it is seen as a popular mode by local people and politicians are eager to please them. However, all these debates over devolution show the complexity of the issue and the fact that many politicians, principally on the Right, are wary of creating new institutions and what they see as layers of bureaucracy. Rail campaigners though need to side with the pro-devolution lobbies as these new mayors are far more likely to deliver improvements to the network than the status quo.
Victory for railway heritage
I’ve often been heartened by how a few people getting organised over a plan or an event can make a real difference. Recently, I was contacted Jon Fitzmaurice, a former colleague at Shelter (where worked from 1979 to 1982!), who had noticed my campaign to be Labour’s mayoral candidate in London. He was concerned about a developer’s plans to demolish two railway cottages next to East Dulwich station that had been built for the station master and railway workers by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway around 1860.
They are the oldest surviving houses in the area and represented a key part of local heritage. However, they were not listed and the developer, who owns the two houses, was seeking permission from Southwark Council to replace them with a small four storey block of five two bedroom flats. The plan had already been turned down but the developer appealed and Fitzmaurice helped create a local campaign, Railway Rise Action Group, around the issue. More than 40 objections were posted and the appeal was turned down with the planning inspector stressing that the cottages were ‘non-designated heritage assets’ meaning that although they were not listed, their historic importance should be taken into account. That seems to have been the deciding factor, though also the scale of the proposal was out of keeping with the local area.
Fitzmaurice recounted a lovely anecdote which shows the extent to which developers can be ‘economical with the truth’. He told me ‘the developer had argued in his application to the planning inspector that the houses were of no merit and needed to be demolished’. However, one had recently been advertised for renting and was, according to the same developer: ‘A totally unique Victorian cottage located seconds from East Dulwich BR station. This charming property boasts original features throughout, three bedrooms, modern bathroom and a pretty private garden.’ You couldn’t make it up (I love the totally unique as if something could be partly unique!).
This is an important case since it shows that it is worth fighting such schemes even if the property is not listed as it may still be possible for campaigners to argue it has local importance.