1. Government
August 9, 2016

Of course London gets more transport funding than the north. It's addicted to it

By Jonn Elledge

Yesterday, IPPR North, the arm of the centre left think tank concerned with, well, you can guess, put out a rather depressing report about the north-south divide in England’s transport funding.

Its researchers crunched the numbers on where public spending on transport across the country was going, and found a gap big enough you could lose a whole fleet of trains down there. Some key points:

  • The total cost of London’s Crossrail between this financial year (2016-17) and 2020-21 will be £4.6bn – more than the £4.3bn going to all transport projects in the entire north over the same period. 
  • The £1,900 spent on transport for every Londoner is more than six times the per head funding on offer in the North East (£300) and North West (£290). It’s nearly eight times as as the £250 per head on offer in Yorkshire & the Humber.
  • That actually looks generous compared to other regions, like the South West (£219) and East Midlands (£193). 

Here’s the inevitable chart:

Click to expand.

I have some quibbles about this. Crossrail will actually extend outside London into the East of England (two stops in Essex) and South East (eight stops in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire which are, confusingly, given the region’s name, to the west of London; I don’t make the rules). It’s not clear the IPPR figures have accounted for this: Crossrail is mostly an investment in the London region, but it isn’t that entirely.

Nonetheless, it’s very clear that London is swallowing a massively disproportionate share of Britain’s transport funding. This is clearly unfair. 

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Yet it’s also, I fear, very unlikely to change. The concentration of transport funding in London is politically inevitable, and for at least four different reasons.

1) Population

London is big: nearly 9m people live in the capital proper, and a few million more in the commuter towns beyond. It’s probably the most populous of England’s eight official regions (we’re between censuses so we’re not sure, but in 2011 it was only half a million behind the South East, and has almost certainly overtaken it by now).

More to the point, thanks to its extensive public transport network, London is integrated, in a way none of the others are: an investment in the centre will have benefits for the whole. 

That isn’t true of the other regions. A new branch of Manchester’s Metrolink, say, will be great for the bit of suburban Manchester that gets to join the network, but won’t be of direct use to much of the North West. That makes it harder to sell to the voters. 

Crossrail, though, can be sold as project that’ll benefit all Londoners – not to mention those who commute in from the counties surrounding it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a fifth of the British population live somewhere in the project’s orbit. 

Result: politicians are more likely to prioritise another Crossrail than they are incremental improvements elsewhere. 

(And yes, this does mean that London’s existing transport network gets it to the front of the queue for more transport investments. More on this below.)

2) Economics

The UK economy is ludicrously over-centralised. London generates a disproportionate share of UK GDP; London generates a disproportionate share of UK tax.

All of which, one suspects, makes it easier for projects in London to get the green light from the the cost-benefit analysis which the Treasury uses to make spending decisions. Okay, the project costs a bomb… but, wow, look at the benefits!

It’d be difficult to make the same case for, say, a metro in Bradford.

There’s more:

3) Funding

The government also tends to smile on projects where it doesn’t have to pay the entire cost. Businesses in London were so desperate for Crossrail that they were happy – at least, after a fashion – to contribute to it through the business rate supplement.

Couldn’t northern businesses do the same, to show support for transport elsewhere? Well, yes – but there are fewer of them, and they’re not as rich. And most importantly of all…

4) It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy

…they’re not dependent on an over-crowded public transport system to get their staff to work – because there isn’t one – so they’re less likely to feel the need to stump up. London businesses, though, are dependent on a decent public transport network. Those elsewhere are not.

In other words, this whole disparity in funding is self-perpetuating. If London transport breaks, then it will genuinely hit London’s businesses, and that in turn will hit the national economy and the national Treasury. The capital is addicted to transport spending, and the country needs the capital.

Oh, and:

5) Bubble

The people who make the decisions are almost entirely based in London. So yes, that’s probably a factor too. 

I’m not saying this is good. It’s very, very un-good. It’s deeply, ludicrously unfair that, because London is richer and more dependent on public transport, that means it gets the lion’s share of funding forever more. It’s crazy.

But it’s also really difficult to see how we get out of this. If we don’t invest in public transport in Leeds, well, sucks to be Leeds, but the rest of us will just get on with our day. If we don’t invest in public transport in London, then the country might actually start to break. 

And so, we’re stuck. 

For what it’s worth, this is one of the reasons I’m in favour of devolution. Those theoretical Bradford and Leeds metros might never rise up the national agenda. But they’d be pretty important to any West Yorkshire city region that may one day emerge. (Many of the extensions of Manchester Metrolink have come about precisely because the 10 boroughs worked together to push for them.)

Until then, though, you can expect to see more graphs like the one the IPPR produced above, basically forever more. I’m not saying it’s good. I’m just saying it is. Sorry.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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