Michael Gove has promised to bring the “spirit” of Thatcherism to the north of England, at a conference where he failed to meet most of the region’s leaders.
The northern mayors wanted to lobby Gove to get the government to strip Transpennine Express (TPE) of its rail contract, after the operator cancelled up to 46% of its services in recent days.
Gove, the levelling up secretary, met the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, for 15-20 minutes after giving the keynote speech at the Convention of the North in Manchester on Wednesday. But he did not have time for meetings with the mayors of the Liverpool city region, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire or the North of Tyne.
Dehenna Davison, a levelling up minister, was supposed to be appearing at the conference but cancelled because of “business in Westminster”. It is the second big northern event she has missed in recent months, following her absence from the Great Northern Conference in November.
In his speech, Gove made frequent references to partnering with strong local leaders, saying levelling up worked best “when we are working in partnership with empowered, strengthened, economically ambitious local leaders who are our equal partners in our shared national endeavour”.
But Oliver Coppard, the mayor of South Yorkshire, said he tried and failed to meet Gove while he was in Manchester. “The government – and Michael Gove in particular – keep on talking about how important levelling up is, indeed today Michael called it an urgent moral mission. He’s right. He could have used today to meet with me and the other mayors of the north to talk about how we can work together to make levelling up a reality. I’m sorry he didn’t take that opportunity.”
A source in the levelling up department said Gove would have liked to have stayed longer but had to return to London for events related to Holocaust Memorial Day on Friday.
Gove told the conference that he took inspiration for levelling up from Margaret Thatcher’s regeneration of London’s docklands.
“The original vision for regeneration of the area – from the Treasury of the time – was simple. Just cut taxes and deregulate and a thousand flowers would bloom in the dusty and contaminated soil of the docklands. But while lower taxes and smarter regulation are certainly powerful ingredients in any growth package, they just weren’t enough,” Gove said, in what could be seen as a criticism of Liz Truss’s economic instincts.
He said Thatcher instead decided to intervene, decontaminating the land and building transport links that encouraged the private sector to invest. “London docklands today is an economic success story – one of the most signal success stories we owe to Mrs Thatcher’s government. And it is that spirit that animates our levelling up policies,” Gove said.
He said he wanted to see further devolution to places including Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire and Warrington, and Hull and east Yorkshire.
Burnham welcomed Gove’s promise to give Greater Manchester and the West Midlands £30m to improve social housing, and more control to build affordable homes. But he said Gove had failed to address the most prominent “real-world” issue plaguing the north: the poor state of the railways, in particular TPE services.
“We are in a position where we can’t accept it any more. We can’t allow them to damage our economy day after day. We can’t allow them to damage people’s lives day after day. There has to come a point where you say we can’t accept this any more,” Burnham said, calling on the government to strip TPE of its contract.
Statistics gathered by Transport for Greater Manchester show TPE cancelled 18,587 services last year, 20% of the timetable. Figures obtained by the Guardian show that the service has deteriorated further this year. On three days this month, TPE cancelled more than 40% of services. The nadir was on 18 January, when the cancellation rate was 46%. Excluding strike days, the overall cancellation rate for the month is 23%.
A spokesperson for TPE said the company knew it was offering an “unacceptable” service. It blamed the cancellations on “a combination of ongoing high levels of sickness and an unprecedented training backlog following the pandemic, coupled with increased training demands to support major route and timetable upgrades, together with the withdrawal from overtime working by Aslef drivers which has dramatically reduced our roster flexibility”.
• This article was amended on 26 January 2023 to give the duration of the Gove-Burnham meeting as 15-20 minutes, instead of 10 minutes.