Comment

13.03.18

The north has a plan

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 18

There has always been an incredible thirst for change in the north. Now, there is finally a plan robust and forward-thinking enough to make it happen, says Barry White, chief executive of Transport for the North (TfN).

The north has a plan. It’s a simple sentence, innocuous at first glance perhaps, but that plan has been decades in the making – and the fact that it exists at all is a testament to a collective will that has fought long and hard to bring it to fruition.

As the second chief executive of TfN, I count myself lucky that I have come on board at a watershed moment.

The launch of the draft Strategic Transport Plan for the North this January is the culmination of a massive amount of dedicated hard work – much of it taking place behind the scenes – but all of it contributing to a collective initiative that will have a real impact on the infrastructure that will shape an important part of the UK for generations to come.

Speaking as one

Just a few years ago, I think very few people would have thought it possible to bring 56 local authorities and local enterprise partnerships together and giving them one voice. But that is what TfN has done. That single partnership of 56 – embracing, as it does, the whole of the north of England and representing the interests of 16 million people – has united around a shared vision.

The vision is simple and unambiguous, which is why, I believe, it has found unity. It is to create a thriving north of England, where modern transport connections drive economic growth and support an excellent quality of life.

Anyone who lives and works in the north knows it is a place with a special quality. Enhancing connectivity and levering economic growth on the back of intelligently-focused connectivity can only further increase its appeal. The opportunity and potential for growth is clearly evident. Looking at a widely-recognised economic measure, GVA per capita, it is £7,500 less in the north than the UK average and £22,500 less in the north than in London. That’s a significant gap in productivity, but one that is there for the closing.

History has taught us that tackling the challenges faced by the north in a piecemeal fashion is often not the optimum approach. The arrival of TfN on the back of a building tidal wave of a desire for change, is, therefore, nothing if not timely.

Change is coming

Our approach to creating a plan has been simple: identify the issues, locate the potential, evidence it, and map out the means by which that potential can be realised. It sounds simple enough, but when you start overlaying the resulting plans on top of the existing rail and road infrastructure, it becomes clear that, if those plans are to be effectively delivered, then much needs to change.

What’s significant for me here is that things are changing. If we look at the rail sector, we are now beginning to see a real focus on ‘outputs’ as the drivers for schemes rather than ‘inputs.’

We are also seeing a greater recognition of the value of local knowledge and an encouragingly broader view on the returns on investment from transport interventions. The debate on HS2, for example, has now moved on from a debate around what some saw as a ‘trophy’ speed-centred project to the realisation that HS2 is as much about releasing capacity as it is about enhancing connectivity.

I’m also really encouraged by the fact that these schemes are no longer seen in isolation. The rail network is just that – a network – and each piece added to it, or taken away, will have an effect on the rest of it.

Much has already been written about Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) – and about HS2 – but not a lot has been written about the fact that these two programmes are now beginning to gel together as part of a cohesive programme of coordinated enhancement, and that by doing this, the UK has massive opportunities to identify and exploit synergies and efficiencies.

The same is true of the TransPennine route upgrade, which on its own is a massive and important rail programme. This also aligns closely with our work on the merging NPR network, a vehicle that will help deliver a step change in resilience and capacity for rail in the north of England – helping the north’s major economic centres, including Manchester and Leeds, realise huge latent potential.

Planning for future generations

Our Plan for the North of England ‘joins dots’ as they have never been joined before. We’ve researched the north’s key capabilities. We know what they are and where they are – and we’ve developed a 30-year plan to give them the best possible chance of performing through better connectivity.

Consider this: our research shows that, in the north, only 10,000 people can reach four cities or more in under an hour. It also shows that, with NPR, we could increase that number from 10,000 to 1.3 million.

We’ve also shown that, with NPR, 58,000 more businesses could be within reach of two or more cities within 45 minutes.

These are big numbers – but they only mean anything if there is a will to see them realised. And that’s the thing: what TfN has done, and those that fostered it, including the pioneers within Rail North, is take the realisation of the potential for change into the mainstream debate.

It’s already changing behaviours and the way people work. Network Rail and the DfT now have specialist arms that are dedicated to taking a pan-northern view.

Local and combined transport authorities are all part of a club that ‘sees the bigger picture.’ Bids for investment are less likely to be made in isolation and are more likely to be heard.

And importantly, with the arrival of our statutory status as a sub-national transport body on 1 April this year, the evidence that supports those bids for transport interventions has to be taken into account by the government before any decision is made.

There have already been tectonic changes behind the scenes in the way the needs of the north are being addressed by both government and its delivery agencies. Funds have, are being, and will be committed to the north. The case for change continues to be made and will continue to be pressed home.

TfN is being formed in a period of political and economic turbulence. That makes our work even more important.

The plan, supported through a single voice representing every major local authority and every local enterprise partnership in the north, is as much an economic plan as it is a transport plan.

I think we can be proud of that, and I would urge everyone to take a look at our draft Strategic Transport Plan.

Top image: TfN

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To read the plan, visit:

W: www.transportforthenorth.com/stp

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