Politics

Axed bus routes, congested trains and broken promises: Is Leeds the UK's worst-connected city?

Rishi Sunak's scrapping of HS2 was the latest blow to a city already suffering from an underfunded public transport network

The North

Image: Big Issue

Leeds is the largest city in Western Europe without a tube or tram, the largest in the UK with only one train station, and has had transport project after transport project cancelled. The city has seen plans for a new transit system binned practically every decade since the 1980s; driving is a daily battle, and local buses arriving on time has become a running joke among passengers.

It’s no laughing matter, though. In 2021 just 38% of people could reach the city centre by public transport in half an hour, limiting their work prospects. 

City council leader James Lewis has seen this first hand in his ward. “In the last year or so Arriva [one of the city’s main bus providers] have cut back loads of local bus services. I’ve spoken to people who don’t drive who have had to give up work because the bus they used to get has been cancelled,” he says. “There’s a clear line between good, affordable public transport and getting people into work.”

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Leeds’ transport woes got worse when Rishi Sunak announced the cancellation of HS2 high-speed rail from Birmingham to Manchester due to spiralling costs, sparking a wave of rage across the north. 

Commuters between Britain’s second cities are far from the only ones the announcement will impact. There’s a long list of knock-ons for the whole north, as any local politician will tell you.  

Rishi Sunak “threw a hand grenade into the economy of the north” says Tracy Brabin, mayor of West Yorkshire. 

“It means there is no line between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport – we need that to open up Yorkshire. There is now no line in the East Midlands. We need that to open up fast trains from Birmingham to Sheffield, and then on to Leeds.”

Lewis echoes Brabin’s concerns. “Leeds railway station is one of the most congested spots on the rail network,” he explains. “When there’s delays and problems at Leeds station it has implications for trains right across Yorkshire and the north.”

HS2’s eastern leg would have given the city a second station before it was cancelled in 2021. 

It was a “sucker-punch” for businesses too, says Brabin. 

“We will never know the investment that was about to come to our region that has now had second thoughts and gone somewhere else where the transport is better. All the economists were saying it, the Conservative Party’s ex leaders were saying it, experts were saying it. And yet for party political outcomes, they made a decision that would just trash our ambition.”

But, in northern transport’s darkest hour there is a small flicker of light for Leeds. Sunak promised to channel all the money set aside for HS2 into other transport projects. 

And although it’s become clear that some of these projects have already been built or had funding committed, there was £2.5 billion of new investment announced for a Leeds mass transit system. So, is Leeds finally set to get a tram? The region’s mayor is refusing to accept anything less, but wants faster action. 

“Mark Harper [the transport secretary] says he’s giving us £500 million for mass transit, but that’s not until 2027… it is going to need potentially double that, and we’re going to need it a bit earlier because we’re further ahead than he thinks.”

For residents and businesses though, it feels like they’ve been here before, and it’s a battle they’re tired of fighting.

“The north only really comes into play when there’s elections,” says Jack Simpson, owner of Hyde Park Book Club, one of Leeds’ most popular independent cafe bars.

“Leeds is a commercial city, unlike Manchester and Liverpool, which are more overtly political.”

This is more than just a political issue though and it has a day-to-day impact, he explains. Simpson doesn’t drive so walks, taxis, or takes the bus. 

“It’s ultimately about the kind of lives we can live. I’ve kind of restricted my world to about a square kilometre.

“Living in Leeds but working in York or Huddersfield shouldn’t be that much of a big deal. Lots of people in London will live further out than the distance between Leeds and York, but not many people would want to do that in the north. If everything was more joined up, people would have better jobs and better lives.”

So what’s the solution? The north’s “commercial city” wants to sort it out itself, of course. 

Brabin says local leaders can only work with the resources they are given.

“As northern mayors, we know what our region needs, and we know what will turbocharge our economy,” she says. “Good transport is the key but yet again, the Conservative Party has disregarded and patronised the north and has given us crumbs off the table.”

Lewis agrees. “Of course we’re going to have a national government doing big national projects like HS2… but surely we can build 30 miles of tram in Leeds without getting permission from the Westminster government to do so.”

History would suggest not.

Tom Horn is a member of The Big Issue Breakthrough team.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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