Another take on why Merseytram didn’t make the grade

I’ve commented on this very significant urban transport debacle many times before but the other day I came across an article published in June 2008 in an international magazine called Tramways & Urban Transit. Yes I know, railway/tramway enthusiast niche issue……..

The article covered the ever more desperate attempts to breath new life into a project which had been all but killed off by the then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling back in 2005 when he withheld £170m of government funding. Quoted in the article was former Labour MP (for Liverpool Riverside) Louise Ellman who said the project had failed because there was a ‘lack of clarity’ from the bidding partners.*

This promotional Merseytram bookmark is about all that Liverpool City Region has to show for its big tram ideas.

Louise was of course right. If memory serves the big issue for the Labour government of the day was concern over the funding package and rising costs. The article points towards Knowsley (Lab Council) & Liverpool (Lib Dem Council) being unwilling to cover further cost over-runs.

I was leader of Sefton Council at that time and can recall the tortuous process of trying to get Merseytram going through 2004 to 2009, but where the article is silent is with regard to another big issue which led directly to what Louise Ellman called the ‘lack of clarity’. I refer to the destination of the first line – Kirkby. I took the view, as did many others on Sefton Council and indeed politicians across the wider Mersey Region at the time, that the first line should go to the airport. Liverpool John Lennon Airport was in our view the obvious destination to start a tramway system on Merseyside but our voices were lost as Merseytravel was determined the first destination should be Kirkby. We had nothing against Kirkby but it already had a 15 minute Merseyrail service which simply needed extending to a 2nd station in that Town, whereas the airport had no rail/tramway connection and indeed it still doesn’t.

One of the ‘pulls’ towards Kirkby for the 1st Merseytram line was a proposed and huge TESCO/Everton FC redevelopment in that Town but that plan fell over it’s own hurdles with Everton now likely to he headed to a new stadium at Bramley Moore Dock at some point yet to be determined.

The other thing not mentioned in the article is the position of Wirral Council. They were hardly big supporters of Merseytram because being on the other side of the River Mersey they would be highly unlikely to see any benefit from the project at all. Maybe they and their residents still harked back to the first Mersey Tunnel which was supposed to have trams running through it to Birkenhead as well as road vehicles. Of course that never happened so once bitten (even though back in the 1930’s) twice shy?

Anyway, on with the thrust of the article, having given a bit of the local political background, as it was written on the basis that then (in 2008) Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly** had offered to revisit the stalled/virtually failed Merseytram project. In effect she was asking Merseytravel to come up with a new more viable scheme. At this point Merseytravel still had another 2 years to enact the powers given to it by Parliament to build the first phase of the tram system.

Sadly, of course, Merseysiders will know that no such viable plan was put forward and in 2010 the powers lapsed.

To me the project was a lesson in how not to plan major public infrastructure. It seems obvious now, as it should have been then, that the partners in the project needed to have a common view as to how it would be taken forward and as I think I’ve shown above there was no such common view. My feeling is that Merseytravel launched into the Merseytram project with far too many loose ends trailing behind it, hoping that all would be ‘alright on the night’ so to speak – It never was and probably was never going to be.

The irony is that within the same magazine there’s a celebration of NET (Nottingham Express Transit) which had won ‘Light Rail Operator of the year – 2007’ as it had been able to gain government support for it’s system (first opened March 2004) on the basis of it being clearly robust and well supported. I’ve travelled on NET; it is indeed a good system and I hope that I’m not just saying that as a Notts born lad.

A Nottingham NET Tram at the Phoenix Park terminus.

* The bidding partners were Merseytravel (the passenger transport body for Merseyside), Liverpool City Council, St. Helens Borough Council, Knowsley Borough Council, Sefton Borough Council & Wirral Borough Council.

** Ruth Maria Kelly is a former British Labour Party politician, serving as Member of Parliament for Bolton West from 1997 until she stood down in 2010 – Wikipedia

Paradise Papers, tax avoidance and austerity

www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/07/end-offshore-games-democracy-die-paradise-papers

The Guardian has this opinion piece on its web site – see link above

This is an interesting piece indeed and I agree with its general thrust.

On austerity though Aditya Chakrabortty tells us that there was an alternative to it. Well yes there may well have been but how come the UK’s 3 major political parties went into the 2010 General Election promoting austerity (in one form or another) as the major solution to the mess our economy had gotten into? The brightest minds in all 3 political parties seem to have reached a similar conclusion, some even thought that Alistair Darlings Labour version of austerity could well have been worse than the Tory plan although clearly he was not given the chance to implement it.

My personal view is that a form of austerity was always on the cards as part of the overall solution to the economic crash, together with tax increases and of course dealing with tax avoidance.

That it (tax avoidance) is legal in this day and age speaks volumes because of course it’s only the seriously wealthy who can engage in it. Tax rules for the poor and tax avoidance for the rich you might say.

Also the ‘Three hundred billion quid’ referred to in the opinion piece is not what the Treasury would or could have picked up surely but only the avoided tax upon it.

But quibbling aside, as I say, the general thrust of this piece is right; there’s no place for offshore money or tax avoidance in a functioning democracy. Time to stop both UK Government.

With thanks to Roy Connell for the lead to this posting.

Austerity as we think of it post the financial crash is far from being the whole story of the decline in council services

There is no doubt that austerity as either implemented by the Coalition Government (and then sadly pushed far, far harder by the present Tory Government) or indeed as outlined by Alistair Darling (his austerity would probably have been harsher than the Coalition’s some commentators say) on behalf of the Labour Party prior to the 2010 General election has had a huge impact on the ability of councils to deliver services.

But in fact there is a funding crisis that goes back much further than the financial crash of 2007 that has impacted on local authorities. That funding crisis is back in the headlines now but I recall it rearing its head almost every year that I was Sefton Borough Councillor during the budget setting process. In fact it was twofold i.e. children in care and care for the elderly.

Year on year senior council officers would present the need for extra money to be put into these two care budgets, often the amounts asked for, year in year out, would be have six 000,000’s behind them.

My point is that the elderly and children in care budgets have been eating further and further into council budgets for many, many years so austerity as far as local authorities are concerned did not start with the great financial crash but maybe 10 to 15 years prior to that.

And what made me think of this matter which must have been impacting on every local authority with responsibility for elderly/child care? Well two things really. The elderly care crisis is hitting the headlines yet again because politicians refuse to address it properly and have failed to do so for a least the last 20 years. And the other very local issue that made me think about it is the demise of public toilets and in particular the former award winning ones in Maghull.

Maghull's closed public toilets at the Square Shopping Centre.

Maghull’s closed public toilets at the Square Shopping Centre.

Public toilets have been in decline for a long time and the Maghull ones are an interesting and sad example not least because Sefton Council would once boast about them being award winners (Public Loo of the Year or some such award) back in the 1980’s. But since those days the Council’s focus, you could say its priority, has been slowly but surely moved towards funding the elderly and children in care.

What’s happened has been a creeping process whereby the amount of money each local authority has to spend on other services has got smaller and smaller as the budgets for elderly and children in care have got bigger. And this well before the consequences of austerity and the financial crash hit them via government grant cuts.

The thrust of government policy has in effect been to force local authorities to spend their money in these two key social care areas and on little else. Yes there’s no doubt that the austerity that followed the financial crash sped up this process beyond what anyone could have conceived but it had been a trend for a long time, one which was pursued by governments of all colours.

In reality local authorities (this does not include Town and Parish Councils – they don’t get an government grants) are now focused on delivering statutory services and have almost no money to deliver things that local people may want. Public toilets, for example, are a non-statutory service hence their demise across the UK.

Personally, I have thought that the funding of local authorities has been inappropriate for many years because they are in reality delivering two very different things i.e. local often non-statutory services for their communities and statutory services where they are in effect simply an agent delivering governmental/national services. The two got muddled up in the times of plenty and it did not seem to matter. However, in times of scarce money it is the local mainly non-statutory services that have been lost as the money has gone to prop up the statutory ones.

The former Aintree Library - closed by Sefton Council.

The former Aintree Library – closed by Sefton Council.

Sadly, it is more complex than that even because if you take the example of libraries they are a statutory service i.e. local authorities have to provide them. But the level to which they are provided is a different matter so Sefton Council was able to reduce it’s libraries from 13 to 6 without falling foul of the law not so long ago.

However you look at it local authorities are the fall-guys for austerity because governments of all colours over the past 20+ years have not funded statutory services, particularly adult/elderly social care, properly.