The West Midlands is desperately underfunded for transport - that was the overwhelming consensus of the mayoral candidates who met last night to debate the region's transport needs. The five major parties were represented at a public debate organised by Railfuture and Friends of the Earth.
"The lack of money is something that every candidate raised" said Steve Wright, Secretary of Railfuture (West Midlands), who organised the event "There were many topics that came up, including buses, pollution, congestion and HS2, but the key issue was how does the West Midlands get its fair share of funding to make the transport improvements that the region desperately needs"
Beverley Nielsen for the Lib Dems said that the West Midlands needs a £1billion a year for transport. "It could manage with £700m per year but it's only getting £300m, which is insufficient", she said, pointing out that "The West Midlands economy is the size of the Czech Republic and New Zealand." .
She proposed offering free transport to all young people aged 16-25. "We must invest in getting them to use public transport so that they do not buy cars later on." She described herself as "a really big fan of cycling and walking".
James Burn for the Green Party said "The funding pie is quite small. The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the world. Westminster decides how 91% of all taxpayers' money will be spent, but it's a much lower proportion in other countries."
He said that that "people are dying prematurely because of air quality" and that "crowded trains and high fares" are a problem.
Siôn Simon, the Labour candidate, said that he wanted to expand Birmingham International Airport, and that roads must work better, becoming more effective. "There are lots of projects in the pipeline already fully or partly funded." Additional funding relied upon the credibility of the case, not the credibility of the mayor. "The mayor needs to enable people to get things done."
"Buses should be franchised" he added, arguing that the West Midlands should have the same system as London. He was also in favour of bringing back the M6 Toll into public ownership, which the other candidates said would cost £2 billion and money not well spent.
Pete Durnell, for UKIP, is the son of a founding member of Seven Valley Railway. " HS2 is not justifiable, but we must make it work to best effect" he said. He " supports the Cycle Charter to increase the percentage of cycle journeys." But he felt it was wrong to suddenly tax diesel vehicle owners when only a few years ago the government had been incentivising them to buy diesel vehicles. "Not all pollution in the city is caused within the city" he said
Andy Street for the Conservatives said " The West Midlands needs to spend more than the funding it has been given by government. We need to think laterally about new funding models. The Mayor's job is about how we do something more than what we do". He wants to "invest £10 per head per year in cycling. The West Midlands currently invests 25p whilst London invests £20."
He believes that the major issues with buses in the West Midlands is their speed. 'Slow speed is killing off bus services," he said, leading to "declining patronage."
Each candidate was given a three-minute opening and closing presentation. Candidates drew lots on the order they would speak. This also dictated their position on the table. The meeting was chaired by Lorna Slade, editor of Rail Professional Magazine and a Railfuture Vice President. Lorna was assisted with local knowledge by Roger King, a Railfuture WM branch member and former MP for Birmingham Northfield.
In addition to these five candidates, Graham Stevenson is the communist candidate who submitted his nomination papers at the very last-minute and was therefore too late to be invited to the debate.
Notes to editors:
Railfuture is the UK's leading independent organisation campaigning for better rail services for both passengers and freight.
Railfuture's website can be found at: www.railfuture.org.uk
Follow Railfuture on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Railfuture and https://twitter.com/RailfutureWMids.
For further information and comment please contact:
Steve Wright, West Midlands branch
Tel: 0121 475 4005
steve.wright at railfuture.org.uk
William Whiting, West Midlands branch
Tel: 0121 572 9236, Mobile: 07972 353192
william.whiting at railfuture.org.uk
Bruce Williamson, national media spokesman
Tel: 0117 927 2954 Mobile: 07759 557389
media at railfuture.org.uk