Iron Angle: Metro plan just the ticket
An expected announcement by the Department for Transport that Birmingham is to get £82 million to enable the Midland Metro tram system to be extended from Snow Hill to New Street Station represents one of the most extraordinary political achievements in recent years.
The funding is all the more remarkable given the parlous state of the public purse and the government’s previously stated doubts about the value of expensive tram systems.
If Birmingham does get its Metro extension, this will represent the first DfT approval for light rapid transit in a decade and will no doubt leave other major English cities wondering why their bids to finance tram systems fell on deaf Ministerial ears.
In some ways, approval for the Snow Hill extension will eclipse the go-ahead for the £600 million refurbishment of New Street Station.
The case for improving New Street was always recognised by the government and it was really a matter of when rather than if funding streams would be made available.
Lengthy delays in getting the project off the ground were due partly to a clash of political egos in Birmingham and London combined with the DfT’s quite natural wish to satisfy itself that the business case was as robust as the city council claimed.
The New Street Gateway project attracted a broad coalition of supporters, including all city councillors, MPs from Birmingham and the West Midlands, other councils, Network Rail, Advantage West Midlands and the passenger transport authority Centro.
Plans to extend the Metro have never appealed to everyone, indeed even now I suspect there is a sizeable minority on the city council that take the view this is a bit of a waste of money and that the DfT would be better off using £82 million to improve bus services.
The Snow Hill extension is of course a vastly scaled down version of the Snow hill to Five Ways extension plan inherited by the city’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2004.
Officially, the route through the city centre and up broad Street to Five Ways is still on the drawing board and will be completed when funding allows.
In reality, it is dead in the water. All attention is focused now on a future extension of the Metro from New Street to Birmingham Airport, a strategic link that the council believes will play well to Birmingham’s ambitions as a major international city.
The finessing out of the Five Ways route and its replacement, in the short term at least, with a much smaller extension along Bull Street, Corporation Street and New Street was originally to have been funded largely by private money. But the credit crunch and recession put paid to that, leaving the council more or less wholly reliant on public sector cash to deliver the extension.
This may account for the extremely low-key way in which the council, and city leader Mike Whitby, have persuaded the DfT to back the Metro project.
Whitby, as regular readers of this column will know, is no shrinking violet and certainly led the New Street campaign from the front. It may be of course that he and the council have learnt an important lesson from New Street. Gateway might well have been approved earlier had the tendering process not been beset by very public political squabbles between the council and the government – not least over who would take the credit for delivering the huge scheme.
Another fascinating point about the Metro extension is that its approval in the current climate suits just about everyone involved with the scheme.
Coun Whitby can claim, with some justification, that regeneration in Birmingham is booming even in difficult economic circumstances. Work has begun on the civic library in Centenary Square, the New Street project has begun and the Metro extension is about to get government approval. Conveniently, these three major projects are due for completion at about the same time in 2014, offering a triple boom to this city’s reputation.
Saying yes to the Metro will also suit the government and Birmingham’s Labour MPs in the run up to a difficult General Election. Ministers must be hoping that New Street and the Metro, taken together, will promote a certain amount of feel-good factor as we come out of a horrific recession.
It can only be a matter of time before we are treated to the sight of Transport Secretary Lord Adonis and Coun Whitby decked out in hard hats popping the champagne corks at Snow Hill.