'Does the Government care about us or not?' - frustration over funding hopes for East Coast Main Line

Major blows to regional transport funding and aspirations have been described as a ‘red line’ by one chief, who questioned if the Government ‘cares about the North East or not?’

By Ben O'Connell
Tuesday, 19th January 2021, 5:41 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th January 2021, 5:41 pm
There are concerns over the absence of detail regarding potential future funding for the key rail line linking the North East with London, Edinburgh and other key regional hubs.
There are concerns over the absence of detail regarding potential future funding for the key rail line linking the North East with London, Edinburgh and other key regional hubs.

The comments by chairman Cllr Martin Gannon came at the Tuesday, January 19, meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC), where there was frustration at recent developments which have dented regional leaders’ hopes for investment, against a backdrop of Covid-19 and despite the Government’s pledges on ‘levelling up’.

An update to the committee noted the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published its final report into the rail needs for the north and Midlands in December 2020.

The committee report states: ‘While the options include proposals for East Coast Main Line investment, the report does not go into any detail.

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‘More detail is being sought from the NIC regarding specific proposals for the line north of York, but it appears that the NIC has been given instructions to work within a fiscal envelope that makes it impossible for HS2’s Eastern Leg, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and appropriate upgrades to the conventional rail network to all be delivered.’

The Government’s Integrated Rail Plan is now awaited and ‘political leaders, business and industry in the North East have stated that investment in the ECML in our region must be included.

‘Better connectivity by rail is an essential enabler for the region’s economic growth and environmental improvement plans.’

A further blow was struck just last week when plans to significantly reduce next year’s budget for Transport for the North (TfN) – the region’s statutory transport body – were unveiled.

While yet to be finally agreed, the Department for Transport has set out its intention to award less than half the funds included in TfN’s Spending Review bid last year.

It includes a cut in TfN’s core funding to £6million from £10million previously, and no funding for the roll-out of contactless payment systems on the north’s rail, bus, and tram networks.

Following a board meeting, TfN’s finance director, Iain Craven, said: “Transport for the North’s Board has clearly indicated its disappointment and concern that, at a time when the Government’s levelling-up agenda is needed most, funding is being cut, putting northern investment and jobs at risk. It falls substantially short of what we outlined the north would need to level up infrastructure and accelerate benefits to the region.

“There is a real worry that this signals a diminishing ambition for the north, rather than pump-priming the region’s economic recovery.”

At the JTC meeting, Cllr Gannon, also the leader of Gateshead Council, said: “This is a red line for me. Either the Government cares about the North East or they don’t. I want to know, do they care about the North East or not?

“This is not a political thing – I’m a politician, slice me through and you know what colour I am all the way – but this is about the North East.”

Later in the meeting, Cllr Gannon added: “I don’t think there’s a single person in the North East who doesn’t agree with the rationale, impact and cost-effectiveness of upgrading the East Coast Mainline. I’m not sure what else we can do.”