Boris goes full steam ahead
HERE at last comes an election pledge that will change people’s lives for the good, and in parts of the country where it matters most.
Or in the word of the moment, it’s a policy that is eminently ‘relatable’.
This is Boris Johnson’s pledge to invest £500m to re-open many of the railway lines which were axed in the disastrous Dr Beeching closures of the 1960s.
The Prime Minister’s promise to set up a Beeching Reversal Fund is aimed at reconnecting branch lines to towns which have been cut off from the rail network, particularly in the North of England and the Midlands, areas which were decimated by the Beeching cuts.
It is an inspired move and one, which in Johnson’s words, could have a significant impact on those ‘left behind’ in the neglected communities where wealth and health inequalities are at their greatest.
Towns such as Ashington, Seaton Delaval and Blyth in Northumberland have been earmarked for a chunky £99m to reinstate old lines and build new stations while Willenhall and Darlaston in the West Midlands are to receive new funds.
Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, has been ahead of the game for some time, having already opened up old lines but has more to do.
Funds will also go to connect Skelmersdale to Liverpool and Manchester and a disused line is to be rebuilt between Thornton-Cleveleys, near Blackpool, and Fleetwood.
These may be little moves but should have a big impact. It’s what will make the Northern Powerhouse a reality rather than a fancy Westminster concept. Rebuilding rail links between local towns will help people reduce their travel time to work, making it more attractive for workers to stay living locally rather than moving into bigger cities. It also gets cars off the road, improves productivity and reduces stress levels. What’s not to like?
Whether the Beeching fund will be enough to meet demand is another matter. But at least this move gets the ball rolling, and may even put a rocket under local councils to raise their own funds – together with the private sector – to build more local rail.
Rail remains the best and most environmentally friendly method of travel. Since privatisation, rail has roared into a new golden age although there are of course exceptions such as Southern Rail.
Over the last decade, passenger numbers have risen by more than 60pc with more than 1.6bn journeys a year, growth wellabove the EU average.
Yet there is room to improve. If the Conservatives are returned to power, they must move quickly to overhaul the current franchising model, a reform which was promised in the latest Queens’ Speech.
They need to stop allowing Labour to make the case for rail nationalisation, and show why it’s full steam ahead. Boris as the Fat Controller is a good start.
High Street goodies
ALONG with Johnson’s rail fund, came another bag of goodies to sweeten trading on the High Street. It’s not a bad pick ’n’ mix: discounts on business rates for those with rateable values less than £51,000 and a new relief for pubs. There is also a sweetener to help people take over pubs and post offices.
While well-intentioned, these measures are not going to make a jot of difference to our hollowed out town centres.
As the Daily Mail’s Save the High Street campaign has highlighted, it’s like putting sticking plaster on an open wound.
The trouble is the wound is festering and needs serious surgery, not tinkering with semi-subsidies.
Our business rates system is broken, no longer fit for purpose as the competition between online retailing and physical shops continues to be rigged in favour of online.
Time for some blue-sky thinking to look at meaningful alternatives, such as replacing business rates with a tax on sales to level the playing field.
MY first ever car was a bright red AustinHealey Sprite, nicknamed the Frogeye.
My father allowed me to buy the Frogeye (£300) on condition I helped restore the beautiful creature. Armed with Swarfega – I can still recall the smell – and spanners, we eventually made her fit for the road.
So it’s nostalgic to learn that the business set up by the late John Haynes, who wrote the first Frogeye manual in 1966 and sold all copies within three months, is up for sale.
Haynes Publishing is doing brilliantly, is worth £25m and has moved online successfully. The Frogeye deserves a good new home.