In April, Transport for the North (TfN) formally comes into existence as a statutory body, charged with helping people and goods get about the northern third of England.
This is all very exciting – at least, it is if you’re the sort of person who reads CityMetric, and if you’re not then what on earth are you doing here? What’s especially exciting is that, last week, we got the first proper glimpse of what the new body intends to do with itself, when it published its first strategic transport plan, complete with maps and everything.
I’m going to get into the weeds on that a little below, but if you’re the sort of person who can’t be bothered to read the words and really just wants to look at the maps, then the quick version is:
- This looks like a big step forward in terms of the north planning for its own future;
- Except when you dig into the detail it’s not that ambitious;
- And it’s ignoring a major issues;
- And TfN doesn’t really have any money anyway;
- So it isn’t that big a step forward at all actually, which renders the whole exercise a teeny bit disappointing.
Anyway, chapter and verse. The report is being reported as a £70bn plan to overhaul transport across the north. It proposes enough road and rail upgrades to keep us busy for 30 years, and those who’ve produced it have claimed it could create 850,000 jobs and add £100bn to the economy. If you buy the idea that a big problem with the economy of the north is that it’s a pain in the arse to get people to jobs, then it should be a big deal.
The report, as stated, is festooned with maps, but here are the big two. First up, here’s the most important: the seven corridors in which TfN is hoping to improve infrastructure:
Click to expand.
Those corridors cover a lot of ground – almost all of it, in fact, although I think there’s a chunk of the Yorkshire Dales that isn’t included. So at first glance suspiciously, it looks like the big strategy for the north is to invest in transport in the north.
The individual maps are slightly more informative, but not as much as you’d think. Here’s the one for the “improving road links between Yorkshire and Scotland section:
Click to expand.
There’s not a huge amount of detail about particular projects in there, is there? Basically it’s just a shiny map to show the region needs better roads and, well, yes. There’s no big ask in terms of extending the M1 or some such. (For what it’s worth, the full report references long-standing proposals to upgrade the A1 to motorway standard as far as Newcastle, but doesn’t go much further.)
But what you really want to know about is rail, right? So here’s the rail map. It’s less depressing. Slightly:
Click to expand.
Talk of HS3, or Crossrail for the North, a brand new line from Liverpool to Hull, seems to have been over-stated somewhat. There’s a new section proposed from Liverpool to Manchester Airport via Warrington; and another form Manchester to Leeds via (woo!) Bradford. But the rest of the route will have to make do with some slight upgrades, and Sheffield has been forgotten altogether.
I don’t want to whine too much, though, because it’s silly building new lines if you don’t have to (no, really, I honestly think that). And if this is accurate this is a significant step up in terms of the region’s connectivity:
There are, though, two big gaps in all this. One is local transport. TfN has focused on improving links between cities. But as the Centre for Cities’ Paul Swinney has argued:
If increasing commuting is the aim, we should be looking at improving transport connections within city regions and to their surrounding hinterland, better linking residents in and around cities to the jobs within them.
That’s not a job for TfN, it’s one for the local transport authorities which are its constituent parts (county councils, combined authorities and so on). But most of these guys clearly don’t have the money or the power to do the job. Faster trains between Liverpool and Leeds are great and all – but if most of the residents of those cities can’t get to the central station, they’ll have a limited effect.
The other gap in the TfN report is, somehow, even bigger: unlike Transport for London (TfL), TfN doesn’t have any way of generating its own income. That leaves it with no way of obvious funding its big schemes, other than smiling sweetly at the Treasury and hoping.
So it is that at the report’s launch, this happened:
During the event, former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott stormed out, shouting that TfN is “a bloody fraud.”
He said: “It was promised to have statutory powers. Now we know, and it’s been confirmed by government, it will have no powers.
“It can talk to the treasury along with the strategic bodies but it can’t make a decision and it doesn’t get any money. It’s a bloody fraud.”
Prescott is, among other things, a former transport secretary.
When TfN was first announced back in 2014, I compared its scope to Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr (VRR), which oversees public transport in the Cologne/Dusseldorf/Dortmund conurbation of western Germany. But like TfL, VRR gets to actually do things. It runs over 50 railways, 45 street cars, 19 light rail lines, as well as buses, trolleybuses, and the Wuppertal suspended railway.
I concluded that, “If HS3 is really going to transform Britain’s economic geography, [the government] may need to go further.”
It didn’t – and this report is the result. Lord Prescott may have been unkind – but TfN has a lot of work to do to prove that it’s anything more than a talking shop.
The report is now out to consultation. We shall see.