The End of the Line
4 December 2017 | Author: Jim Steer, Director, Steer Davies Gleave

Recent announcements suggest policy-makers get the significance of transport in meeting wider economic and social aims. As Stuart Thomson put it recently when writing for Transport Times about the Government's newly published Industrial Strategy, 'Transport is at the heart of the future'.

The Industrial Strategy White Paper envisages a roll out of measures, with more sector deals ahead – including, it is hoped, for rail. As Nils Pratley commented in the Guardian, it is 'official acknowledgement that the geographically lop-sided UK economy and our historical under-investment in infrastructure are major sources of our woeful productivity performance'.

And the focus on place – so evident in the earlier Green Paper, which explained that the strategy can't do 'everything everywhere, but must do something everywhere' – is hanging in there. Regional Industrial Strategies are to follow, to be made the responsibility of the new cadre of City Mayors or, in their absence, of Local Enterprise Partnerships. Mere local authorities can step aside.

Looking at (broadly defined) industrial challenges at a regional level makes a lot of sense, but will the resulting strategies address local needs? The answer to this question hinges on the scale of labour markets: are they regional or more local? Answers can look very different from the viewpoint of Westminster than from those places 'left behind'. It is with these parts of the country, where social mobility is diminished, that the recent report by the Social Mobility Commission is concerned.

And they are not just the one-time major industrial areas of the North and the Midlands, but deep rural areas and coastal towns too.

The worst performing place in England in social mobility terms? West Somerset, apparently. BBC Radio 4's Today programme set off in pursuit. Rocking up in coastal town Minehead, they were greeted by youngsters saying: 'there are no opportunities around here' and 'it's the end of the line – nothing until Cornwall'. The 'big' local employer – Butlin's aside – was a paper mill until that was closed two years ago. Radio 4 interviewed Chris Northam, who had responsibility for winding down the abandoned site, and who explained that there was nothing locally that could match his salary: soon he'd have to be looking at Bristol or Exeter (1h 40 or 1h25 along the M5), both cities suffering congestion as DfT has just acknowledged. In effect, like so many others before him in such places around the country, he'd have to leave.

This is the hollowing out process that the Social Mobility Commission addresses. As its Chairman, Alan Milburn explains, there are three essential investments that must be made to turn around places such as Minehead: investment in education, in employment and in transport.

There is a price to be paid for a past emphasis on investment in areas of greatest economic success, seeking to reinforce already established growth poles. Counting in 'agglomeration benefits' rules out transport investment in hard-hit areas like Minehead, where basic public transport provision, already thin on the ground, is getting thinner. Where the labour market-place, instead of having close business rivals acting competitively, creating employment choices and driving up earnings (the agglomeration model), has local employers joining a race to the bottom, there being no need or reason to offer more than the bare minimum wage. It's a local, not a regional labour market in reality.

No commercial enterprise is going to appear over the horizon to invest in a local economy like Minehead's. It will have to be a community-led response, a point recognised locally. But Minehead is too small to be in line for the kind of Government support that might be on offer. What looks like a good idea in the White Paper, moving down the size chart and launching 'Town Deals', in the style of 'City Deals' started in the days of the Coalition Government, won't ever reach Minehead.

Grimsby looks to be the first in line for this initiative. For Minehead, Taunton (1h 25 minutes by bus) might be the closest possibility.

True, many of the places most socially excluded are not so remote as is Minehead. Many industrial towns and villages where the primary source of employment disappeared in the 1980s are within striking distance of major cities, with multiple job opportunities. But culturally, they may still feel a world away. Part of the solution could lie in transport, and in recognising that out-commuting helps the home economy, as it already does across the south east.

And for once, there is a ready-made solution on offer. Minehead is still connected by rail to the main Line at Taunton, once a journey of only 45 minutes. But today it's run as a heritage line, with no suitable timings for journeys to work. Providing a suitable service for commuters year-round: now there's a challenge for the new GW franchise, just out for consultation.

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