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A plan to transform the North’s economy

Monday 16th January 2017

With Transport for the North’s Strategic Transport Plan currently being developed, we sat down with Transport for the North’s Director of Strategy, Nigel Foster, to find out more.

We started off by asking Nigel what the Strategic Transport Plan is and how it’s being developed:

“Our Strategic Transport Plan for the North will be the document that outlines the pan-Northern transport investments needed to drive and enable transformational economic growth.

The Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review, which we published last year showed how, with the right support, the North’s economy could be transformed, from one which is underperforming compared with the rest of England to one which is much more productive. If this transformation takes place, by 2050 we will see the North contributing an extra £97 billion to the UK economy with 850,000 more jobs in the region compared to the ‘business as usual’ projected growth.

What the Strategic Transport Plan will be saying is: if we want a transformed economy, these are the interventions that we need to promote for infrastructure investment.  This isn’t about the North saying, we want more money. It’s about us saying, at the moment the transport infrastructure is one of the things inhibiting economic growth.”

Such a plan for the whole of the North is a large undertaking; can you give us some further details on how it’s being developed?

“We’re developing it in stages, alongside our partners in local and combined authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, national transport agencies and central government. We’ve got lead representatives from each of the partner authorities engaged in regular sessions so we can develop the plan together, as obviously this plan needs to be informed by what’s already there and what’s being prepared by local areas in terms of long-term planning, as transport is not the only factor important for economic growth.

We are working closely with our Northern partners to make sure that we embed their policies around skills, spatial planning and economic growth. We’re also working with central government, to ensure that this aligns with national policy on skills, housing and of course the government’s emerging industrial strategy.

Our focus is initially on where transport network improvements are needed to stimulate or sustain economic growth: that is what will inform what infrastructure needs building or improving.

TfN is looking at a range of multimodal interventions, including rail, road and international connectivity, based on the needs of both passengers and freight. We’re also carrying out a sustainability appraisal of the strategic transport plan to make sure we understand the whole range of possible impacts arising from transport use in the North, and to ensure that we are taking a sustainable approach to developing transport investment priorities. This appraisal will also look at what changes in technology and consumer behaviour in the future might look like and consider how those may influence travel choices and the need for investment in transport over the long term. The aim of this process is to set out what programme of investment TfN should be promoting up to 2050.”

When can we expect to see this plan?

“The plan is being developed in three stages: initially we’ll be making the case for change by setting out the reasons why investment in the transport sector is so crucial. This initial plan, which we’ll be publishing for initial public engagement in late spring, will set out the approach we’re taking to prioritise options for supporting economic growth. It will also reference the Strategic Roads and Integrated Rail Reports which we’ll be publishing alongside it that clearly set out a portfolio of options that could be taken forward as pan Northern investments. We will also be highlighting areas where we need more evidence.

What it will also do is make sure that this plan looks at where TfN can add value, through strategic, pan-Northern investments that will drive economic growth, create new labour opportunities and create new opportunities for communities to access jobs and services.

Following publication, we’ll be engaging with our partners and with the wider public to see what they think are the most important transport interventions.

Based both on that engagement, and any further research to fill evidence gaps, we’ll publish a revised draft of the Strategic Transport Plan early next year. This will follow TfN gaining statutory status as England’s first Sub-national Transport Body and we’ll be carrying out a formal public consultation alongside its publication.

The updated plan will set out the interventions that we and our partners have prioritised to drive economic growth. Within that consultation document there will be a range of major interventions, such as the Northern Powerhouse Rail network or strategic road investments, alongside other proposals set out in a short, medium and long-term programme which fits alongside the economic and spatial plans and priorities of our partners.

Following this public consultation, the final version of the Plan, which we expect to publish next summer, will become the statutory document for TfN, defining our priorities and containing the investment programme we will deliver. ”

We understand that this is a long term plan, but when will we see some of this being delivered?

“At this stage we haven’t got a programme of transport interventions that are fixed in terms of the period in which they might be delivered or in use. We’re looking at a plan which reflects what would be needed for the economy in 2050 to support higher productivity and sustainable growth that will transform the economy and opportunities in the North.

This is not just about us saying, ‘well, this is what needs to happen in twenty years’ time’ though. We are already working with partners on some major schemes which will make a big difference to the way we travel around the North, including integrated and smart travel and strategic studies looking at major road investments. We are also working closely with our partners in Highways England and Network Rail to ensure that the improvements they are planning now for the next five to ten years are what the North needs in the short term.”

How does this sit alongside central government’s plans for the Northern Powerhouse?

“The aims of central government and the North for transformational economic growth are symbiotic. We want to make sure that this is a two-way relationship – we need our plans to be informed by the government’s plans and policies but we also need them to be informed by the evidence we are gathering.

We obviously want to ensure that transport links to our major cities are vastly improved. This will help create larger labour markets for businesses as well as enabling our communities to have better access to a bigger range of opportunities and jobs. But there may also be places or areas which are not currently very well connected but which have the potential for economic growth with the right infrastructure. Therefore we want to both make sure that transport links are put in place for areas where growth is possible or needed, as well as making sure that the other parts of the mix, such as housing, skills development, etcetera, are present alongside the transport links.”

The big question is always, how are we going to pay for these proposals?

“One of the complementary pieces of work that we’re doing is some research around funding mechanisms to understand how this is delivered. The probability is that it will be delivered over a long period of time.

We are looking to develop a flexible programme of interventions, so we’ll be able to deliver them in line with the funding that’s available at any particular time. It’s important to look at how we can introduce a more innovative approach to financing and we need to evaluate whether schemes are both good value for money and affordable, and we’ve been working with the Treasury and the Department for Transport on what that means. It’s not just about having a scheme which is good value for money, we also need to have the finance to deliver it, and so this is a really important part of our work.”

This is the first time we’ve had a long-term Strategic Transport Plan for the North of England, and it’s the first time we’ve had a plan which looks at transport improvements specifically to drive economic growth, but are there any other areas where something similar has happened that you are using to inform the work you’re doing?

“We’re always learning from elsewhere. For example, Transport for London has a ten year plan for investment in London, which has helped drive development of the transport network to support growth. We’re trying to make sure that we apply that learning in a way that makes sense for the North, both by looking at what’s been done elsewhere and also by understanding the differences between the North and, London and the South East. In the North we are not just trying to accommodate growth; we also want to make sure that we are planning transport solutions that stimulate economic activity.

Having a long-term strategic plan doesn’t just help us plan future transport networks, it also helps both local authorities and businesses to align their plans and give them the best prospects of success – you can already see that with the proposals for HS2. We’re already seeing this happen in the Midlands where HSBC is getting ready to move 1000 jobs from London to Birmingham.

A number of Northern combined and local authorities are now developing their spatial plans with consideration of the new transport hubs that will be served by HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail stations. Local and combined authorities and their partners are developing land use and growth plans to maximise the impact of this investment for development in those areas.”

If organisations or individuals want to feed into the plan is there a way of them doing so?

“We are already widely engaged with range of organisations and authorities across the North so that is already happening, but we want to continue that engagement. We want the plan to be flexible enough to respond to changes, over time, in technologies and demands. We will also be carrying out public engagement around this, talking both to organisations and individuals about what they think and what they know which can inform the plan.

We’re very open to new ideas and we’re very open to discussing how they may fit within a broader strategic framework for transport in the North.”