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More powers for the north over transport are on their way, says Clegg

Plans to give the north of England new transport powers will be unveiled within weeks, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has said – but he rejected the plans for ‘HS3’ between northern cities as unrealistically expensive. 

Ahead of today’s victory for the ‘no’ vote in Scotland’s independence referendum, Clegg had been in Yorkshire highlight his ‘Northern Futures’ project, which is aimed at stimulating cross-party ideas “about the future of the north's economy by asking people to get involved in formulating a radical new growth strategy for the region”.

In particular, the deputy PM has vowed to fast-track devolution proposals over rail, roads and buses.

Speaking in Leeds, he identified that transport is a major obstacle for the region’s growth. “We have three cities – Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield – all within 45 miles of each other and it can be some great adventure to get from one to the other sometimes on some of that old creaking rolling stock,” he said.

“That just can’t last. If we are really going to create a ‘travel to work space’ of sufficient scale we need to invest in transport infrastructure.”

The Liberal Democrat leader also suggested that devolutionary proposals could include giving northern transport authorities control over local rail franchises. He has also agreed to look into alleged weaknesses in the new Northern Rail franchise, saying that he would be discussing this with transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin.

However, Clegg dismissed plans floated earlier this year by chancellor George Osborne to build a new high-speed Transpennine link, known as HS3. 

“I think simply imagining that we are suddenly going to find billions and billions of pounds to build HS3 from a standing start, I’m afraid that’s just not the world we live in at the moment,” he told the Yorkshire Post./p>

Following the launch of the ‘Northern Futures’ project, a summit will be held on 6 November, where the best ideas will be discussed and the next steps of a plan will be decided.

Earlier this year, the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) launched Right Track North, a new charter calling for the government to address the north-south rail divide. In particular, it wants to see a greater investment in better quality, higher capacity and better connected rail services. 

James MacColl, head of campaigns at CBT, told RTM: “We have set out our position on what should happen with the franchises in our charter.

“Any action which goes to support what we set out in the charter is a good thing. We’re yet to see what the follow-up to what Nick Clegg was talking about with the ‘Northern Futures’ project, which will set out a range of proposals that will feed into the chancellor’s autumn statement, will be.”

He added that if Clegg is talking about improving the franchise re-letting for Northern Rail and TransPennine Express, that would be a great move.

“We think there’s a real wealth of pressure building up on the government now and that they are beginning to understand that there is another option, and that the best way to reduce subsidy is to increase investment and get more people using rail – and that means providing the services people want,” he said.  “But we’ll see what the content of the Lib Dems work will be when they produce something.” 

Rail North told us it cannot comment and referred us to the individual transport authorities and PTEs in the region. 

Asked if Rail North should have greater powers in the franchising process, MacColl told us: “We think local authorities have a role to play in franchising and we certainly think that, in an ideal world, the franchising process would be more in the hands of local authorities. 

“We’re happy with Rail North to be involved in a way that’s clear and understandable to people. But as far as I’m know there’s yet to be an official agreement about what exactly Rail North’s role is in this franchising – but I’m sure it will come. In theory we’re supportive of Rail North having a strong role in the process.” 

(Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire) 

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