Transforming transport and improving lives in West Yorkshire

West Yorkshire has more than £1bn to spend on much needed transport projects. Keith Wakefield is chair of the transport committee for the West Yorkshire combined authority and also a board member of Transport for the North. He spoke recently to Andy Walker.

The £1bn West Yorkshire plus Transport Fund is targeted at reducing congestion, improving the flow of freight and making it easier for people to commute to and from expected major growth areas in the City Region. “£1bn is a significant amount of money and transformational if we get it right,” says an excited Keith Wakefield when we met over the summer. “This is devolution for real and it will make a real difference not just in road schemes but also economically,” he said.

With over 30 projects planned, the aim is to reduce journey times, improve air quality and provide people living in more deprived areas with better access to jobs by car and by public transport, Wakefield is keen to stress the benefits such projects will bring to the wider community in West Yorkshire. “We’ve had vast amounts of land stuck that hasn’t been developed because of infrastructure links and now we have a chance to unlock that and change things from what they have been for decades,” he says. 

“When we spoke to the people who wanted to work with us it wasn’t just about new roads or transport systems it was also about employment. We shouldn’t underestimate that we can encourage contractors to take on apprenticeships and be good employers. We can create good employment because people will get the training and support. For me as a politician that’s really, really important,” he said.

More park and ride schemes will be a crucial benefit from the work planned and already underway. Wakefield says that Leeds in particular is blazing a trail amongst major cities in this area. “I think we have finally cracked this now and are changing people’s behaviour,” he said, citing the city’s successful scheme at Elland Road, which started with 400 spaces and now has had to double its capacity. 

“People believe in park and ride now. They know they can go to Elland Road, park up, get on a bus and be in the city centre in five minutes. No big city has done park and ride on the scale that we have done. Single ticketing is crucial to making it easy. The Aire Valley scheme will be yet another opportunity to get people out of cars and onto buses. It’s all part of tackling the bigger issues of air pollution, but also changing people’s behaviour to use public transport. It’s one hell of a challenge,” Wakefield admitted.

I asked Wakefield about devolution in an area that has yet to agree a city region mayor. “Everyone agrees with devolution, but the government’s addition of an elected mayor has muddied the waters towards the aim of a more locally based federal arrangement that doesn’t rely on Whitehall,” says Wakefield. “In Yorkshire we have a tradition of being more autonomous and federal. We don’t merge our identity so places like Castleford would fight to the death to make sure that they weren’t submerged in some greater Leeds thing. The government have also not put enough on the table in the devolution deal - £30 million a year is not a lot,” Wakefield claimed.

Wakefield said that devolution had to deliver for the north. “All the big cities of the north combined are as big as Shanghai,” he said. “It is a powerhouse yet we are still the poor relation of the south. Our rail services are painfully slow, especially from the local areas into cities, and it is simply not good enough,” said Wakefield. 

Wakefield wanted to see a long-term view to reverse decades of neglect. “There has to be consensus between parties because the issues are too important,” he said. “Air quality in Leeds is killing 700 people a year. Our economy is not functioning properly because people are waiting hours to get into work. Surely common sense would say let’s put all that aside and let’s have a long-term strategy to solve it,” Wakefield said.

“People need to travel around more effectively. We need a decent bus service and for people not to need a car to get into employment or to visit friends and family. I know people who have lost jobs because they couldn’t get to work on time by bus,” said Wakefield.

“The dependence and reliance on cars has to be reduced. It’s obsessive and it’s bad for the environment and bad for our health,” he said.

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