In what felt like a significant milestone in the journey, and a vindication of the months and years of hard work that so many people have dedicated to the project, this week the Chancellor of the Exchequer released his Budget for 2021 and committed to more than £40 million worth of funding to reinstate passenger services on the Okehampton to Exeter rail line.
In his Budget 2021 document, The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, referred specifically to the rail line as part of the Government’s funding commitments. On page 61, it states: “The Government will invest £59 million towards the construction of five new stations in the West Midlands, cutting journey times from Willenhall, Darlaston and south-west Birmingham into the city centre. This Budget will also unlock more than £40 million of funding to reinstate passenger services on the Okehampton Exeter line, subject to final approval of costs and contracts. These investments will provide good quality transport links between communities, and improve employment opportunities across these areas.”
It was announced at the end of last year, as part of the Government’s National Infrastructure Strategy that ‘the Government will…deliver on its manifesto commitment to spend £500 million to restore transport services previously lost in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, including reopening the Ashington-Blyth line in Northumberland to passenger services, and restoring rail links to Okehampton in Devon.’
The Budget was the first confirmation of how much of the £500m the Okehampton to Exeter rail line would actually receive. A key milestone and recognition of the work that has gone in by so many people over a number of years.
As The Moorlander has previously reported, the news means that Okehampton will become a ‘railhead’ for the hinterland and benefit three main markets; those wishing to visit the heritage station and Dartmoor, local people from Okehampton travelling to Exeter for work, leisure and education plus potential passengers wanting to connect with the train from West Devon, parts of Torridge and North Cornwall.
Indeed, as the Mayor of Okehampton, Cllr Julie Yelland, has stated previously: “…being able to catch a train at Okehampton to get to Exeter and beyond will go a long way to reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality while making the area attractive to businesses wishing to locate here.
‘This, in turn, will see an increase in employment opportunities and make the area more accessible for tourism, both for day visitors or those enjoying a ‘staycation’. All absolutely essential in the normal course of events but even more-so now as the pandemic has affected all our livelihoods in ways we could not have possibly imagined.”
Speaking after the announcement, Central Devon MP and Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Mel Stride warmly welcomed the announcement:
“I’m delighted that after many years of local campaigning, Government has backed this vital scheme. I look forward to seeing Network Rail ready the track for the return of regular passenger services in the coming months; so we can reconnect communities, boost tourism and give many thousands of my constituents the quality of local transport infrastructure they should rightly expect.”
Despite this positive news, and as many of the people involved in OkeRail will tell you, this cannot be seen, in any way, as being as the end. Indeed, it is perhaps not even the end of the beginning. The reopening of the Okehampton to Exeter rail line must be part of the overall goal of reopening the line from Exeter and Plymouth. As reported in the last edition of The Moorlander applications to the Restore your Railway Ideas Fund had already been submitted by Devon County Council and Connect Bude before the March 5th deadline.
Notwithstanding, this confirmation of funds by the Chancellor will finally mean the project can continue apace, not only benefitting Okehampton but also neighbouring towns and villages, especially those further west in the ‘rail desert’ of North Cornwall. Indeed, as Richard Wolfenden-Brown, Chair of Connect Bude, previously told The Moorlander, the reopening of the line will facilitate so many ‘benefits in terms of the environment, education, work and training, health and wellbeing, leisure, culture, tourism,
commerce, connectivity and most importantly a sense of renewed confidence and local community pride in the town being recognised as a rail destination and gateway to Dartmoor and the coast.’
In only his second Budget, Sunak couldn’t have asked for a more challenging time to be Chancellor, outside of wartime.
However, in what will come as positive news not only to the Government but to businesses across the country, the Office of Budget Responsibility is now forecasting ‘a swifter and more sustained recovery’, reaching the pre-COVID-19 levels by the middle of next year – six months earlier than previously thought.
Here are the key elements from the Chancellor’s statement.
- The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will be extended until the end of September.
- The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme has been extended. The fourth grant will cover February to April, worth 80% of average trading profits up to £7,500. A fifth grant will be available from July.
- In good news for Devon, eligible retail, hospitality and leisure businesses will pay no business rates for three months, with up to 66% relief for the rest of the year worth over £6bn in 2021-22.
- The Chancellor confirms that a 5% reduced rate of VAT for companies in the hospitality and tourism sector will continue to the end of September. There will then be an interim rate of 12.5% for the six months after that.
- Non-essential retail businesses will receive grants of up to £6,000 per premises. Hospitality and leisure businesses, including personal care and gyms, will be given grants of up to £18,000. That’s £5bn of new grants; on top of the £20bn we’ve already provided; taking total direct cash support to business to £25bn.
- The Chancellor said the Government will continue to freeze duties on alcohol, and also scrap a planned increase in fuel duty.
- The Chancellor says the £20 a week increase to Universal Credit will be extended by another six months, to provide further support for the poorest families.
- Laying out plans for supporting the economy in the coming years, the Chancellor says the Government will not raise income taxes, national insurance or VAT.
- Plymouth will be one of eight newly created free ports, areas within a country that are legally designated as outside its borders. As such they follow different customs rules.
- A tapered extension of the stamp duty holiday until 30th September, allowing more people to purchase their homes before the deadline.
- Mr Sunak launched a new mortgage guarantee policy, with major lenders set to begin offering 95% mortgages (in which buyers put down just 5% of the property’s cost, as a deposit) from next month.
- An extra £19m for domestic violence programmes.
- £10m to support veterans with mental health issues.
- £40m to support survivors of the thalidomide scandal.
- Mr Sunak has announced ‘over £1bn’ for 45 new Towns Deals. He adds that the Treasury has created a £150m fund to help communities ‘take ownership of pubs, theatres, shops, or local sports clubs at risk of loss’.
The full Budget document can be read here: