Trains are devolving
That’s probably a good thing. This devolution idea seems to be likely to hang around for a bit. Politicians based in Birmingham are likely to be more interested in rail services based in Birmingham than the bunch based in London. They may not run it any better but it’ll be a shorter drive to go and shout at them.
I’m not based in London or Birmingham so the whole thing is of largely academic interest to me.
Except actually I use that franchise quite a lot. The West Midlands franchise (currently badged London Midland) provides the (rather slow) rail link between Hereford and Birmingham (and Malvern, Worcester etc). We are, quite literally, the end of the line (or I suppose, the start).
London Midland isn’t the only operator serving Hereford. We travel north to Manchester and south to Cardiff and beyond on Arriva Trains Wales. Responsibility for this Wales and Borders Franchise is being handed over to the Welsh Assembly.
We’re also the end of the line for the occasional Great Western service (not complaining I love my early morning chug through the Cotswolds).
From next year the vast majority of our rail services will be under the control of devolved institutions. That’s exciting. Closer to the people, more accountable, more joined up.
Except, here in Herefordshire we don’t get a vote in either of those institutions. We’re not in Wales nor are we part of the West Midlands Combined Authority.
This might not matter. It’s not like transport planners have been focused on making an effective and efficient service at Hereford station up until now.
But it probably will matter.
The whole point of devolving decision making is that it will make it more responsive to local people. So the West Midlands franchise should be, under devolution, run to be in the best interests of Birmingham and the Black Country. The Wales and Borders franchise should be (despite the name) run to be in the best interests of the Welsh.
If it serves Herefordshire well it will be by accident or because our interests coincide with the interests of the people of Wales or the West Midlands.
I suspect you probably still don’t care. We’re only talking about trains after all.
But let’s think about some of the other issues that are going to be devolved to the West Midlands and are already devolved to Wales: health, social care, road transport, economic infrastructure investment.
In all these cases we’re on the edge. Potentially squeezed between two institutions created with the explicit purpose of not having to worry about the impact of their decisions on us.
What can we do?
As I see it we have three broad options
- We can ask to join one of these devolved bodies.
Joining Wales might be a hard sell in the county (though maybe not, they are our neighbours after all (yes, OK, it would be a hard sell)). It would probably be an even harder sell to the people of Wales. And even then I can see negotiations over the use of the language and the location of “Welcome to England” signs spiralling out of control.
The West Midlands might be even tougher. We don’t share a land border with the West Midlands county and, let’s face it, no more than 1 in 100 of their citizens could point to Hereford on a map, let alone Leominster.
- We can get a devolution settlement of our own.
We’ve already missed out on some of the juicy deals but I think most Herefordians would have some strong opinions about local priorities for road spending or health. But the independent state of Herefordshire? It’s difficult to see it. Cornwall managed to get an early devolution deal so it’s not unheard of for a single county. But Cornwall has over half a million inhabitants (that’s not far off 3 times our population).
So a combined authority then? Joining up with Shropshire and Telford? Or maybe with Worcestershire? That worked really well before didn’t it?
No. No it didn’t.
Personally I’m quite attracted to the idea of devolution to the Marches (currently configured as Shropshire, Telford and Herefordshire). If Worcestershire joined we’d match the police force boundary. If they can do it maybe politicians can to.But then I grew up in Hereford, lived in Shrewsbury and worked in Ironbridge. My perspective may not be typical.
At least we could expect more of a focus on improving the A49.
- We can say a plague on all your houses and just ignore it.
This also has its attractions. English devolution may not take. And compared to what we see in Wales it’s really quite limited.
There are real reasons to be cautious. In 2008 Herefordshire Council merged with the Primary Care Trust (then the thing that made most of the decisions for the NHS in Herefordshire). This was an uncharacteristically innovative thing to happen in what is , to say the least, a small-c conservative county. That was unwound in 2013 not because the people of Herefordshire thought it was a bad idea but because the government struck Primary Care Trusts out of existence (as part of fulfilling their election pledge that there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS).
That should create within our leaders locally a healthy scepticism of how much power the folks in London are really going to hand over.
To devolve or not to devolve
I’m not trying to sell one option (except I think joining Wales is probably out) but I do think it’s something we should probably talk about.
Wouldn’t it be great if the people of the county had a say in where the decisions that affect the county were taken.
Is that a foolish hope?