In Context - Northern towns fear rail future

As columnist follows columnist, flooding the media with pieces on the deepening divide between London - the city the recession passed by - and the deeply-problematic residue of the UK economy, recall that you first heard it here: in July 2011, reporting research from the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester, which spotted it long before anyone else.

Railways: deal to hand power to councils close to collapse
Railways: deal to hand power to councils close to collapse

But there's a deeper twist to this story: the division between core cities like Manchester, and the rest of the regions where they happen to sit.

Last week the Financial Times carried an exclusive: a deal to allow local authorities to take over franchising of train services across the north of England, crafted two years ago by Lib Dem MP Norman Baker when he was public transport minister, was close to collapse.

It was too complex, the story suggested, and Department for Transport officials evidently didn't think the local authorities were up to it. Rail North, a consortium they've set up, covers more than 50 local authorities and has only recently managed to agree its approach. The organisations involved range from the Greater Manchester combined authority, a statutory city region that is busily creating one of Europe's largest tram networks, to recently-created local enterprise partnerships that are struggling to agree transport priorities in their own bailiwicks.

Worse: one of the two franchises in question - which many think should be combined - is Northern Rail, which gets the beefiest subsidy of any train company in England: 7.1 pence for every passenger-kilometre travelled. Whether Whitehall or Rail North is paying, it's doubtful whether this can continue.

But the services thus subsidised are precisely the ones that radiate from successful core cities like Manchester and Leeds and Newcastle into their surrounding regions, serving old one-industry towns that have lost their economic base and are among the most deeply deprived in the country. Their councillors are starting to break ranks with the big city barons, arguing that High Speed Two will do nothing for them if it ends at the buffers in the core city centres.

Irrigating the regions - a French transport concept, successfully applied in their industrial north - is their emerging demand.

But with tax money all too likely to dry up, so will those train irrigation pipes.

Sir Peter Hall is Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration, University College London.

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