1. Transport
October 8, 2019updated 19 Jul 2021 4:08pm

A monorail won’t fix the East Midlands. So what could?

By Robin Wilde

Andrew Bridgen MP, the Tweedledum to Mark Francois’s Tweedledee, has made a limited name for himself as a standard-issue Conservative reactionary with boilerplate right-wing views on everything from the European Union to HS2.

As such it was quite surprising to see him endorsing a monorail or light rail link between East Midlands Parkway station and East Midlands Airport, as an attempt to reduce congestion on local roads.

While I’m always supportive of more investment in public transport, it would be a vast undertaking to cover a three mile gap – which inconveniently happens to contain an A road, the M1 motorway, a major flight path and the village of Kegworth. So it’s worth thinking about what measures really could be taken to help Britain’s least-remembered region succeed.

Fix Britain’s Buses

Lacking a single unified metropolitan area the East Midlands is more vulnerable than most regions to a lack of a single transport authority. With its population outside Nottingham, Derby and Leicester mostly residing in small towns and villages, it is bus services that provide what most people think of as public transport.

The situation is not good, as Bridgen’s own constituency illustrates. Getting to Leicester from Coalville, a distance of about 12 miles, takes over an hour, and from Kegworth to Loughborough (five miles) costs £3. This situation is replicated across the region’s smaller towns, where rail services are often slim to non-existent.

It’s true that getting between East Midlands Parkway and the airport is a transport challenge – the station sees just four scheduled buses a day. But building a properly regulated bus network that can serve smaller towns would relieve road traffic and save drivers money, while also costing significantly less than a pointless monorail.

Restore council budgets

A July report by the House of Commons Transport Committee (beautifully entitled “filling the gap”) reported that local authority spending on maintenance of B, C and U roads fell from just over £2.5bn in 2009 to under £2bon in 2017-18. Losing 20 per cent of funding will naturally have knock on effects on the quality of roads, and the efficiency of road works that are undertaken.

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In addition to the direct effects on the roads, rural areas with a lot of poverty are inevitably hard hit by cuts because their location makes access to remaining services more difficult. They also have more older people requiring social care, which as a statutory service requires that other services receive proportionally bigger cuts.

While Bridgen’s North West Leicestershire scores relatively low for deprivation according to the 2019 Indices of Multiple Deprivation data, the East Midlands as a whole has significant areas of rural poverty, especially in Lincolnshire and in some parts of North Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Given the above mentioned prevalence of small towns and villages in the East Midlands, reflating council budgets to the point where they can properly maintain infrastructure would relieve traffic, as Bridgen apparently wants, and have all sorts of pleasant side effects like properly funded social care and bin collections. But why have that, when you could have a pointless monorail?

Sort out Brexit

For all the vox pops of post-industrial towns in the North so beloved of TV news, the East Midlands was the region of the UK which voted most heavily to leave the EU. Only two local authorities – the large, ethnically diverse city of Leicester and Ken Clarke’s home turf of Rushcliffe – supported Remain, with even Nottingham very narrowly voting Leave.

This isn’t due to some innate property of Midlanders but mostly because the region is less urban than most others, with few direct links to either the European continent or to liberal cultural values.

But one place that might be hit by border trouble in the wake of No Deal would be East Midlands Airport. As well as being the nation’s 13th busiest passenger airport – carrying more people than London City or Leeds-Bradford, primarily to destinations in Europe – it’s also the UK’s second-busiest cargo carrier after Heathrow, and an employer of several thousand people directly or indirectly.

With the local MP a staunch Brexiteer, he might want to think through the implications of overwhelming a piece of vital transport infrastructure in his own backyard. But if we are going to face huge airport queues and backed up lorries, at least news crews might be able to arrive on the scene via his pointless monorail.

Support HS2

Bridgen’s concern for the economic wellbeing of the area around the new East Midlands Gateway industrial estate is laudable, but it jars with his long-standing opposition to HS2, which has caused him such misery he sold his house under HS2’s exceptional hardship scheme.

One of his objections is to HS2’s use of hub stations and spurs, such as the planned Toton Hub near his constituency, which will connect to Derby, Nottingham and Leicester via rail spurs and Nottingham’s NET tram system. This would allow greater connectivity between the three major cities of the East Midlands, as well as providing jobs and high speed transport to other areas of the country for local people. But, as Bridgen told the Leicester Mercury:

“Who wants to go to nearly somewhere? It’ll cost billions to connect these hubs to city centres.”

Maybe it would be cheaper and less environmentally destructive if they built a pointless monorail.

Make progress on East Midlands Devolution

The East Midlands and the South East are the only English regions without any devolution deals in place. Some parts of North Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were due to be included in the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority, but withdrew amid wrangling between councils before the election of the region’s first metro mayor in 2018.

Nottingham and Derby have been slated for a deal for some time, but this seems to be slow going, with the current proposal, the Metro Strategy, proposing some degree of partnership only by the end of the next decade.

Part of the problem is that the three major cities all have sufficiently different local characters and economies to be uncomfortable with sharing power, while the political polarisation between the cities, counties and local lower-tier councils is quite stark. Nottingham and Leicester are Labour strongholds, all three county councils are Conservative-held, and Derby is run by an unholy coalition of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party. That’s before we even think about trying to incorporate Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire.

While a unified city-state (presumably headquartered in Loughborough) might therefore be some way off, it shouldn’t be beyond the mutual self-interest of some of these authorities and central government to establish a regional transport authority to help sort out the bus routes and access to the airport, among other issues. This would help – not least because East Midlands Parkway and East Midlands Airport lie across county lines, so you’d need them to regulate the pointless monorail.

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