A long-term plan that unravels the moment it is announced isn’t a long-term plan…it’s a mess.
George Osborne has a long-term plan for the south west. He wants us all to know about it and he wants us to vote for him. The problem is that long-term economic plan for the south west lasted one, perhaps two days before it unravelled. That’s a pretty shocking inditement for any Chancellor but especially one who claims, so frequently and repetitively, to have a long-term plan.
Let’s look at what George Osborne announced and see if it holds up to scrutiny.
Speaking last week in Plymouth he announced plans to invest in the A303. Its curious how many times this can be renounced and still regarded as news. Of course, dualling the A303 will make some difference but it is hard to say that’s directly benefitting Plymouth.
He announced electrification of the Great Western Line and new trains. This has been announced before, but let’s look carefully at this. The new trains will go between London Paddington and South Wales and Bristol, on the new electrified line. Whilst good news for Bristol and South Wales this doesn’t help us in Plymouth. We aren’t getting new trains and we aren’t getting an electrified line - in fact, there are no plans for us to get new trains and no plans for us to get an electrified line.
But there’s more…over a year since the storms washed away the train line at Dawlish and a hundred press releases promising action later, this Government still hasn’t committed to a new line. Indeed, last week’s Transport Select Committee report asked the Government to hurry up and commit to spending on a Dawlish Avoidance Line. Yet, still no commitment, no action from this Government.
The much-hyped Autumn Statement saw George Osborne announce yet another study into re-opening a line to Plymouth via Okehampton (which would take longer, be hugely expensive and still probably mean train companies putting people on buses between Plymouth and Tiverton if Dawlish went down again). This isn’t action, it was long-grassing a decision and it a sign that this Government had ignored us yet again.
After that disappointment, could the Chancellor give us a boost in his big speech? No. Mr Osborne’s big announcement for those hoping for a new train line: he would create a new Peninsula Rail Task Force. The only problem: we already have one. Indeed, it is chaired by a Tory Councillor from Devon County Council and he didn’t know anything about his task force being replicated by, ahem, another task force. What’s more it seems that the Department for Transport didn’t know anything about a new rail task force.
But wait, there’s more. The Chancellor announced plans to set up a new Devon and Cornwall rail franchise. This was news - news to train companies, local councils, the DfT and the current franchise holder. We don’t need rail policy planned on the back of a fag packet. We need proper long-term planning and consultation to get us the rail network we need. A new franchise might be the right answers but long-term solutions cobbled together for big speeches, not carefully planned, consulted upon and costed rarely are.
What Plymouth needs is a firm commitment from Government to invest in our railway. Invest in a Dawlish Avoidance Line that doesn’t go via Okehampton, but speeds up journey times between Exeter and Plymouth via Newton Abbot and Totnes. We need a plan for new trains and electrification.
George Osborne’s speech stands in stark contrast to remarks by Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, a few days before. In his remarks also made in Plymouth he said that Labour would change the priority of work on a new train line for Plymouth. He recognised it takes too long to get to Plymouth and that would change under Labour. A new route via Okehampton would be good news for North Devon but doesn’t help Plymouth at all, and that’s something he wants to change. He wants to make Plymouth a new power-house economy and better transport links are key to this.
Far from being a long-term plan for the south west, George Osborne’s speech smacked of the worst political short-termism and a desperate attempt to pick and mix policies and fit them to our region. That’s not good enough and from the hurried efforts of Tories across the south west to undo the damage caused by the Chancellor’s speech in the days following, it is clear it isn’t just me that’s unimpressed by Mr Osborne’s remarks.
What do you think?
Let me know what you think about the unravelling of the latest Tory spin about our rail link by getting in touch.