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Transport takes its Toll in TV mayoral debate

Transport takes its Toll in TV mayoral debate

🕔07.Dec 2016

You join us for a second visit to Wolverhampton….the beating heart of the West Midlands.

Wolverhampton’s first railway station was at Wednesfield Heath, about a mile from the city centre. It was opened in 1837, but was demolished in 1965. As a mark of respect, all London Midland trains coming into the town still stop there for 20 minutes.

These were the words used to open a BBC programme at 6.30pm on Monday evening featuring a panel of three men and one woman.

It was chairman Jack Dee on BBC Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

Over on BBC1, the four mayoral candidates came together on television for the first time in a BBC Midlands Today debate on transport, part of a feature looking at congestion.

Mary Rhdoes and her guests were slightly less amusing, but nicer about Wolverhampton.

It was not quite a car crash. But it did look a little congested on those sofas.

It was an opportunity for Siôn Simon to further press his campaign for the Government to make a substantial contribution to taking over the M6 Toll road, which just happens to be up for sale.

Chamberlain Files understands that Midlands Expressway (MEL), the company that owns and operates the road under a concession from the Government until 2054 when the road will be handed to the state, has received a number of bids and a sale is likely to be completed in the New Year.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has made it clear that he is not about to ask the Treasury to cough up. WMCA officials have not been lobbying for the acquisition of the road, but say they have had more conversations about the toll road in the last eighteen months. That has been prompted, in part, by days of seriously long delays on the M6 whilst the Toll Road has enjoyed comparatively free-flowing traffic.

Rather than believing they will secure another £1bn+ from central government on taking office, it is likely that the Labour campaign team are using the M6 Toll campaign to give their candidate the opportunity to position himself as the mayor who will “take back control” and secure “independence” for the region. The MEP will be familiar with the success of that language from the other side of the referendum debate earlier in the year.

Apart from the cost, the Toll Road debate centres on which vehicles use the Midland Expressway asset. Chamberlain Files understands Andy Street has gone to some lengths to do his homework and indicated in Monday’s programme that 85% of M6 traffic is local – in other words, cars that are not using the motorway to travel north beyond the West Midlands conurbation.

Whilst Mr Simon disputed the figure, he suggested that even removing 15% of traffic across to the M6 Toll would be worth public investment.

For the record, according to MEL the average daily traffic on the M6 Toll in the period July – September 2016 was nearly 52,500 vehicles with a 7.7% year-on-year increase in commercial vehicle traffic.

Each of the two main candidates sees the debate over the Toll Road as a victory.

For Siôn Simon’s campaign, they believe it is starting to have an impact.

Who’s side his Street on? People of the West Midlands or Tories in London?

Mr Simon’s team see the Toll Road as an opportunity to paint Mr Street as the stooge of big business and the Conservative Government in Westminster.

For Andy Street’s team, Monday night was an opportunity to highlight their candidate as the man with a plan.

It demonstrates quite clearly which of the candidates has a solid grasp of the challenges facing the West Midlands and a plan to tackle them, and which of the candidates does not.

This campaign and Monday’s programme are not all about Street and Simon.

Beverley Nielsen, no doubt with an extra Richmond Park spring in her step, started her opening statement talking about Birmingham Airport. She has made the development of the old Elmdon site a feature of her campaign. Like her fellow candidates, she wants more investment in public transport. She promised a transport plan to “eradicate congestion.”

James Burn wants to see a 24/7 transport system like London and promised to tackle dirty air, partly brought on by congestion. He was the only candidate to bring canals into the mix of possible solutions.

Was there anything new in Monday’s debate? No. Was there much to ease the pain of long suffering commuters and give them hope in a transport infrastructure that faces multiple challenges for at least the next 10 years? Not really.

But transport is, for many people, the number one issue. Every candidate is agreed a re-balancing of transport investment from London to the region is long overdue. It’s also the policy area where the Mayor, either alone or in concert with WMCA leaders, will have most power. So it was right, five months to polling day, to ignite the debate.

As the campaign develops, we’ll just hope for more robust policy and less old school politicking.

We’ll leave for Chamberlain Files visitors and voters to decide if any, or all, of the candidates would have been more suited to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

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