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Great British Railways and Devolution

The following is a review commissioned by RAIL REVIEW. 

How simple it once was. British Rail didn’t really mess with devolved authorities, which in their day were simply local authorities of one sort or another. Sensibly, a railway region was formed for Scotland, and, twenty years later, the 1968 Transport Act created the PTEs, providing a framework through which larger metropolitan areas outside London could get involved in specifying and funding local services. Contact with local authorities was otherwise minimal.

Today, the rail perspective on devolution, at least, is simple enough. Having ignored the advice of the Shaw Review of 2016 (devolution was one of its three main themes), Government  has reverted to the status quo ante across England and a 1970s model of management through regions set by railway geography, as defined by radial sectors originating in London termini.

But, nowadays, as Peter Plisner discovered, it looks less clear from the perspective of those charged with local and regional planning. To understand why, we need to recognise that handing over power and with it the necessary funding responsibility in general goes against the grain of at least one key department of state. Central Governments of successive persuasions have talked the talk on devolution without choosing (or being able) to fix it.

Meanwhile, there are many claimants pleading the case for having a say on rail service provision ‘in my area’. But none of them have the facility to fund meaningful enhancements (to services or infrastructure) without business cases and grant applications making safe passage through the committee processes at DfT. Devolution in practice is a fickle beast, some would say time-wasting.

Indeed, Westminster, according to the Scottish Government, has even used the post-Brexit return of EU powers to reclaim some that had already been devolved. This is strongly denied, but neither the Welsh or Scottish Authorities felt they were properly consulted pre-Shapps-Williams, as Plisner notes. We don’t have a Westminster that sees itself able to ‘partner’ with regional and local authorities, leave alone devolved nations, as happens in other countries. Still, at least, some of the additional rail responsibilities that Wales has sought in recent years have been granted, Mark Barry having never tired of planting his metro for the Valleys vision.  And, amazingly, much of this has been funded!

But it is across England that life looks less promising. The significant bodies of transport expertise that used to reside in County Councils have generally sunk without trace. New Sub-National Bodies (Transport for the North, Midlands Connect, Western Gateway, English Economic Heartlands etc), that could have been given the powers to replace them have emerged, but each seems to have a different status to its neighbour. As has become clear, Government has no appetite for comprehensive or consistent national coverage of devolved bodies.

The PTEs through which effective devolution was once achieved are no more, but an incomplete  patchwork of Combined Authorities (with rather modest amounts of Government funding) could, in time, replace them. The CAs have Mayoralties – but then so too do some cities, a complication leading Plisner to draw out how TfGM’s role in local services could be circumscribed. In reality, TfGM has influence but no statutory locus on rail, and TfN’s role is now largely limited to co-managing the current Northern/TPE franchises.

The inconvenient truth is that some parts of the national rail network lend themselves to devolution while others do not. It wasn’t hard for the SRA in 2003 to accede to the city-region ambition for devolving Merseyrail Electrics on a 25-year concession (although Network Rail wouldn’t budge to let it be vertically integrated, an approach that an all-embracing GBR ought to be able to contemplate). But then the ME network is little used by freight and other passenger services (unlike, for instance, Manchester’s). It is exceptional.

When GBR in transition speaks on the subject of devolution – see CEO Andrew Haines in Plisner’s piece – the aim is to avoid top-heavy centralisation and instead vest more power and responsibility in the established railway regional managements. Perhaps these might prove more able to escape DfT’s micro-management tendencies than a future GBR HQ. But while railway regions defined around the nation’s main lines work well for some locales – the West Midlands for instance – for others, such as Midlands Connect’s wider domain, it doesn’t. And London-tied regions don’t help foster the potentially vital role of cross country intercity services to Government’s levelling up ambitions.

As for GBR and the whole industry strategic plan (WISP), one area we do need to look out for is the adopted mechanism for service planning oversight. This is, after all, where strategic planning can be used by GBR to express its policy priorities. And it is where local and regional aspirations come face to face with railway realities. Combined Authorities, just like PTEs before them, have a penchant for wanting to pop new stations onto ‘underused’ main lines as they approach regional centres. So who decides if these should proceed in future?

The relative merits of local vs longer distance passenger services and railfreight need to be weighed carefully, and guidance from GBR is needed on how best overall network utilisation is to be determined. Local stakeholder input maybe; a view on due process from the Regulator, certainly; but GBR to make the decisions most probably. How else can GBR be held to account for delivery?

Jim Steer

Director, Greengauge 21

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