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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Are the North and South, Rich and Poor in Transport Terms?

I don't think that it would surprise you if I said hat London's transport network gets more money than those in the other regions of the country. Truth be told, most people can acknowledge this fact without having travelled around Britain extensively. Indeed, when I went on a little jaunt round Britain last year this difference was something I noticed. Being a regular user of public transport in London, the seats I sat on, the information boards I looked at and the trains I rode on, were not up to the standard I was used to. This was a contrast especially stark when travelling in the north of the country. I did not, however, complain, and put the differences down to underfunding.

Yesterday I got some basic evidence delivered to me that confirmed my belief. The difference in the funding for transport, especially between the North and the South of Britain, is quite simply stunning. A short report, written by the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG), detailed where money spent on transport services goes, region by region. PTEG, it should be noted, is best placed to do this review. It represents Britain's 6 Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire, as well as Nottingham City Council, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport and Transport for London. All 'provide, plan, procure and promote public transport' in their regions. Yet while PTEG is supposed to promote the interests of all of these member organisations, I don't think it will actually do this evenly. With the majority of these organisations in the north of the country and with TfL being a significant political force on its own that has the backing of the Mayor of London, it is unsurprising that PTEG favours the interests of their non-London members. This, I think, is why the '2010 PTEG Funding Gap report' came about.

Now for some statistics. Please don't go to sleep, they really do make interesting reading. Using data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) from 2008/2009, the report states that Londoners had, per head, £641 per year spent on them. However, those living in North West of Britain, had only a mere £287 spent on them each. Even worse luck befell those living in the North East, where the figure was only £234. This meant that Londoners had, per head of population, on average two and a half times more transport money spent on them than those living elsewhere in Britain. But it apparently gets worse. Of all money spent on transport in this country, 30% was spent in London which has only 15% of the entire population. Yet, the West Midlands, as an example, has 11% of the population and received only 9% of the transport budget. Further, PTEG present statistics that show that the recent disparity is part of a historical trend. Taking the comparison of London and the North and West Midlands, in 2004/05 the London spend per head was £533, whereas in the North and West Midlands it was £216. Skip forward to 2008/09 and the difference is that in London the figure was £641, whereas in the North and West Midlands it was £262. Awake? Right, let's move on.

What is good about the report is that there is no commentary or analysis, leaving that job to people like me. It would be easy for me to jump to conclusions about how unfair the spending difference between the north and south is, and I do think that there is an element of this. But at the end of the day my subjective view point is, however, playing a role in this judgement. The problem is that the statistics in the report actually tell us very little with regard to the issues surrounding public transport. The report measures the spending per head of population, but this is far too basic a measure that doesn't take into account a number of other factors.

My primary complaint is that it doesn't factor in how the services that the money pays for are used. The key statistic would not, therefore, be the number of individuals living in an area, but rather it would be the number of journeys made by public transport. Take for example two stations in roughly the same situations, Berrylands in South West London and Mossley Hill (shown) in Liverpool. Both are in densely populated suburban areas, and both have approximately four trains an hour. In 2005/2006 329,000 people passed through Berrylands station, however Mossley Hill only had 133,128 visit it (one of which was me). This would therefore mean that despite Berrylands being smaller and having fewer platforms (2 verses 4), the facilities would require more frequent maintenance because of higher ware and tare and the trains would need to be longer and at very least require more frequent cleaning. The costs incurred by the operator of Berrylands station would therefore be higher per user and per head of population.

Further, another complaint is that the report doesn't factor in that London's transport services move types of passengers that other British transport systems do not to the same degree. Firstly, the bulk of Britain's prosperity is now, very sadly, focussed on London. Taking figures of Gross Value Added to the economy in 2006, London comes out on top, adding £26,192 per capita. Other regions perform much worse, for example the West Midlands contributes £16,583 per capita and the North West £16,234. Therefore, in London transport links to and from the city, offices and businesses, need to be maintained at a high standard as they are vital to the economy.

Additionally, the majority of Britain's tourism is based in London. London is the world's most visited tourist location and in 2006 played host to 15,640,000 individuals. Manchester, where the second largest number of tourists visit sits at 73 in the world rankings as it only accommodated 912,000 people. Additionally, the top three British tourist attractions, The Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, are all London based, the next being the Roman Baths in Bath. Therefore, tourism would put greater strains on London's infrastructure and would need to provide more facilities for these customers.

Lastly, history that plays a role. Once the railways came to London, the city quickly developed a dense commuter belt. For example, the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), which had a dense suburban network, always derived above 72% of its revenue from passenger traffic. Further, in 1900 the average clerk in London could live at a distance from the city where it would be impractical to walk from, whereas in smaller cities, Manchester or Liverpool for example, he possibly could have made his way to work on foot. Further, because of the fact that there were more industrial workers in the north, than in the business-orientated south, there were fewer individuals that could afford to use public transport in an era when the cost was still rather high. Lastly, many of the railways that served the north, such as the London and North Western and Great Northern Railways, tended to focus on attracting freight as this generated more profit. Historically therefore your average railway historian would tend to see northern railways as 'freight railways' and many of the lines built in the dense industrial regions of the north, while having stations on them, were essentially constructed to facilitate this transport. London, therefore, has always been a city used to using public transport and has it far more ingrained in its woodwork. Public transport in London is therefore used more and has a greater role to play in keeping the city moving.

Overall it seems that the report is very flawed. Just saying that regions other than London receive less money is failing to address the differences in transport patterns and realities of transport in this nation. There needs to be more complex, more detailed and more intelligent figures gathered before spending on transport can be properly assessed.

But then again, with all this in mind, I do still feel that there is an underlying unfairness in the amount of transport funding between London and the regions. The counter argument, to all my points above, is simple. If not enough money is not spent on public transport outside of London, to develop, improve and add to the existing services , then people will not move onto the trains or buses. They are right. The question underlying this is what role do we want our transport systems to play in the future? Do we want them to just continue to service those existing patterns of usage, or do we want them to be an instrument of greener travel and economic growth? I will go with the latter option. I would argue that the challenge to public transport providers and the government, is to increase spending on public transport throughout the nation, so as to expand the opportunities for people to use it. In the quest to be a greener nation, to reduce congestion on our roads and to grow local economies, transport spending needs to increased so that getting on a train or bus anywhere in the country, is as pleasant an experience as it is in London. With the economic crisis we'll see what happens, but in truth, increased and more evenly distributed spending on public transport can be, and should be, a positive thing for all in stimulating economic recovery. Only by making transport spending fairer, will this happen throughout the nation.

Read the report HERE

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