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As the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP, has announced, Transport for the North is soon to make history as the first Sub-national Transport Body in England. As Chair of Transport for the North I’m very pleased with this news, but I’m also aware that this news on its own won’t mean much to most people! So I wanted to try to explain what this does actually mean and why it is good news for the North of England.
It’s been widely reported that spending on transport infrastructure in London is six times higher per person than transport infrastructure spending in the North. There are some very good reasons for this: population density is higher in the London area, so the challenges of moving people around can be greater; and London is a highly productive economic asset and that economic productivity needs to be supported.
Yet the way in which transport spending has traditionally been prioritised can lead to the North missing out. One of the ways that schemes are evaluated is on value for money. If you’re proposing an infrastructure investment in an area that already has a strong economy, which is going to be further supported by the new infrastructure, it’s much easier to see it as a sound investment. But if you are looking to transform the economy in an area that has been underperforming for decades it’s harder to make the case using traditional measurements.
It’s long been known that transport can drive economic growth. Here in the North it was canals or early railways that made it easier to transport people and goods between the mills and mines and metropolises of the region, enabling the industrial revolution.
But, as the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review which we published last year highlighted, for at least the last three decades there has been a persistent economic gap between the North and the rest of England. No one northern city or area can on its own be productive enough to turn around the decades of economic underperformance. But, by connecting the North with rapid and reliable transport links, we can create a powerhouse of nearly 16 million people which is greater than the sum of its parts. Leaders across the North are agreed on the importance of this and are ready to make a forceful case for the investment needed to drive a transformation in our economy.
Transport for the North represents an historic opportunity. For the first time, civic and business leaders from every part of the North have come together to identify and agree upon the gaps in infrastructure that are holding the region back. Our Partnership Board is made up of representatives from all the local transport authorities across the North alongside representatives from the region’s Local Enterprise Partnerships. Sitting alongside us are the national transport delivery bodies: Highways England, Network Rail and HS2 as well as the Department for Transport.
We have been working together for the last two years and much progress has already been made. This announcement from the Secretary of State for Transport both recognises the progress we already have made and starts to allocate us the powers we will need to deliver our ambitious plans.
Once we become England’s first Sub-national Transport Body, we will be a statutory partner in both road and rail investment processes in the North of England. This means that the long-term plans we are currently developing to link the economy of the North will form the priorities for Highways England and Network Rail’s future investment programmes.
We will also be given powers under the Transport and Works Act, which will enable us to promote, coordinate and fund local transport schemes. And we’ll have the powers to deliver a smart and integrated ticketing system across the North – our Smart North system is already under development, with the first phase starting to be rolled out later this year.
Possibly most importantly, becoming a Sub-national Transport Body will make us a formal, legal entity and a formal partner of the Government of the day. For the first time, a united North of England will have a say in the transport priorities which can transform the fortunes of the whole region for the long term.
As the organisation’s independent Chair, I’m looking forward to working with the Partnership Board over the coming months as we reach a formal agreement with the Government, with the aim that we will be England’s first Sub-national Transport Body by the end of this year.