Today’s Transport for the North (TFN) announcement is a positive step forward, demonstrating the Government’s understanding of the critical role that infrastructure – particularly if integrated with housing, employment and skills policies – could play in improving the economic performance of the North of England.
It is only through a truly integrated transport body, with oversight across multiple forms of transport, as well as ticketing and regulation, that the UK’s Northern cities will be able to benefit from the same kind of connectivity as offered by Transport for London – which has played a strong role in the economic prosperity of London and surrounding cities in recent years. Cities with robust and efficient transport connections are more attractive places to do business, and are better positioned to access and attract the skilled workers and investment required for growth.
One of the most important functions of the TFN would be the responsibility for long-term strategic planning and prioritising of infrastructure investment decisions. In times of fiscal constraints, it is critical to ensure that limited funds are being directed to where they can best unlock the potential of cities and city-regions to drive economic growth. It is welcome that the Government intends for TFN to be overseen by an independent chair – however we will need to see much more detail around its accountability, and how the organisation would relate to central Government, and to the existing transport bodies in the North – such as Transport for Greater Manchester – before we can feel confident that it will be able to govern effectively in practice.
TFN would necessitate the cities of the North working together in new ways for a common goal – which will be difficult given the rewards are likely to be unevenly spread in the short-term. In many ways, its success will depend on the extent to which cities can begin to see themselves as part of one singular economic market – testing the rhetoric underpinning the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ model against the realities of cities’ differing priorities and ambitions.
One of the most important elements of this announcement is the costed proposals for significant improvements in train journey times between major cities. As our Fast Track to Growth report showed, the Manchester and Leeds connection in particular has been long overdue for an upgrade: linking the two most highly skilled labour markets in the North, it is also one of the most sluggish rail journeys in the nation. Improving the connectivity of these two cities alone would provide greater opportunities for firms to collaborate and expand, and give more choice to residents on where they choose to live and work.
However, in many ways, the inclusion of costings for these upgrades reminds us just how far away they are from being delivered, and they remain at this stage a ‘wish list’ without any funding commitments. Moreover, without cities having the powers and funding to adapt and connect local transport systems to these new cross-city links, the true potential of the investment will never be realised. So, while the Centre welcomes the ambitions and the rationale behind today’s announcement, there is still much work to be done to ensure that TFN will be structured and equipped to deliver on the Government’s vision, and even more to be done before it comes close to being a concrete plan for delivery in the next Parliament.
Press and External Affairs Officer