The Bristol Economics Festival has over £15 of my money and I couldn’t be happier. A speaker in the first session mentioned my work, Chris Giles’ conversation with Nobel prize winner Jean Tirole was fantastic, and Bristol is a fantastic city of lovely people that I love visiting.
In Jean Tirole’s talk he explained the downsides of France’s rigid labour market. A system that protects permanent jobs so well that no-one wants to create them. A system that thus means that 90% of new jobs in France are temporary and the young, minorities, and those that lose their jobs close to retirement are too frequently left unemployed or pushed into economic inactivity. “If the labour system is a weakness of France, what are the weaknesses of the UK?” was the best question of the session. Tirole cleverly avoided it, it was not his place to lecture others on what to do. I wish his wisdom was more common within policy circles in the UK.
I kept thinking about that question on my walk back to Bristol Temple Meads for the last fast train back to Birmingham. I agree that France’s labour system is weaker than the rest of North Europe’s. It protects jobs and not workers even though it is people, workers, who matter more.
And yet despite the clear disadvantages, France’s economy is the equal of the UK’s. It must be making up in other areas, even if Tirole did not know or did not wish to say. Thinking about what those areas are has bought me around to reply to a question I was asked recently.
If I were the Transport Minister for Yorkshire, what would I do?
The answer to this is pretty simple, I’d copy France. Transport is an area where it bridges the gap caused by its anti-worker labour market rules. Many of France's regions are similar to Yorkshire. Almost all of them are more prosperous.
So here’s what I’d do. Most of it isn’t possible within current UK law and constitution, but I have restricted myself to then changes and investments we might reasonably expect to make in the next five years. There are no monorails, hyperloops, or autonomous vehicles in my plan.
Devolve almost all transport policy and funding to Yorkshire’s two big city regions. The first act of a Yorkshire transport minister should be to make themselves largely redundant. Most of Yorkshire is rural and rural transport is largely a solved problem. Buy a car and learn to drive. The rest of the points are what the transport directors of the cities should do.
Regulate buses and trams in cities. As in London and every other city in Europe, buses work better and contribute most to prosperity when they are regulated. Private companies should run them under tender but the buses, trams, and trains must be forced accept a single simple ticketing system, on a pay-as-you-go smartcard similar to The Netherlands’ OV-Chipkaart or Dublin’s Leap Card. The fares must go to the cities not national government or franchise holders.
Give cities full control over commuter rail networks. Commuter railways into Leeds and Sheffield should be controlled by Leeds and Sheffield in a similar way to how London controls London Overground. Passenger transport executives already exist to do this.
Cut bus services outside of cities. Most of Yorkshire’s poverty is in cities where bus services are cheap to provide. Most rural residents have access to a car. The main purpose of public transport is to move people to and within cities so that greater economic growth can be achieved due to agglomeration effects. Rural buses do not contribute to this.
Take control of rural trains. Rural train services in Yorkshire are expensive to run and do not serve the purpose of supporting growth. They should be run on a structure reflecting their community interest, with explicit subsidies. Over time I would probably reduce them.
Privatise car parks in city-centres. Local government in cities with adequate public transport shouldn’t provide car parking. The market can perform this task.
End free bus passes for the elderly and give them to under 16s. Free bus passes for the elderly are not a good use of money. The same money would be better invested in improving services by building bus lanes and tram routes and by electrifying train lines and lengthening trains. If education policy is still largely controlled nationally rather than locally it might be sensible to give under 16s free bus passes so that they can access multiple schools and thus gain benefits from school choice.
Implement a congestion charge in big cities. It should not be free to drive in central Leeds and Sheffield at peak times. A congestion charge should be implemented both to discourage this wasteful use of road space and to raise revenue for investment.
Borrow to invest in cycle paths, bus lanes, tram lines, electrified commuter railways, and longer trains. Yorkshire's cities have lots of easy opportunities to reduce operating costs of public transport by investing heavily in infrastructure. Most of this money should come from national government which has spent generously in London and the South-East and should now spend in the North where return on investment is higher. Additional funds should be raised by borrowing on the back of new local taxes.
Enforce existing road laws using technology. Considerable road and pavement space for walking, cycling, and driving is currently lost to illegal parking in cities. Enforcing existing rules of the road would stop this and generate revenue. Cameras work. We should use them.
I could write much more on each policy and share the data that’s informed my decisions but we’re already at 1000 words. I have deliberately avoided discussing HS2 and HS3 which I consider to be low priorities for Yorkshire, but beyond any prospect of being decided on locally. These decisions will be made in London, for London’s benefit, for the foreseeable future.