WITH so little strategic planning for transport in the North for years, suddenly, like buses, three reports come along at once.
Transport for the North’s spring update to the Northern Transport Strategy provides plenty more detail on its main priorities and some vital work on how transport supports the North’s economic strengths.
The National Infrastructure Commission’s High Speed North report makes a powerful case for a so-called HS3 network linking up Manchester, Leeds and other major cities.
And then the Chancellor has been quick to respond with Budget promises of over £300m to “kick-start” Trans-Pennine connections.
There is little doubt that the North of England desperately needs investment. If it were a separate nation, then the North would be the 10th biggest in the EU. Yet its transport infrastructure is one of the worst. Commuter travel between Leeds and Manchester is some 40 per cent less than you’d expect between two similarly-sized and located cities in Germany or the Netherlands.
But beneath the headlines there are some important details that bear some careful scrutiny. The Chancellor’s announcements need the most clarification. Whether it’s Crossrail 2 in London or HS3 up North, “giving them the go ahead” may not be quite what it seems. In fact, the announcements are simply to move ahead with the planning necessary to assess viability.
This is not insignificant. It has long been the case that transport investment in the North has been held back because – unlike London – its priority projects have not been “investment ready”.
The £13m for appraising Leeds-Manchester electrification and the Trans-Pennine road tunnel between Manchester and Sheffield are important next steps. But the prospects of them moving ahead any time soon are remote.
The National Infrastructure Commission’s report strikes a better balance between the urgent investment needed and the transformation that will be required to meet longer-term needs. Starting with bringing forward M62 improvements to 2017 which, to be fair, the Chancellor has re-announced in the Budget, the Commission rightly makes the case that immediate rail improvements could be made to cut journeys down to 40 minutes by 2022.
But where in London the Commission is advocating a brand new Crossrail 2 line, in the North they advocate “full integration” with the existing network, not new lines. In simple terms, the research suggests that improving connections within and between the bigger, more dynamic cities is likely to derive the biggest bang for your buck.
There is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy here though and it is the same logic that was used against Northern investment for so long.
This explains why the Commission puts heavy emphasis on improvements for both Manchester and Leeds – including a surprise £1.6bn upgrade for Manchester Piccadilly station.
The Transport for the North strategy offers more of a geographical balance. Quite apart from having to satisfy a much broader set of stakeholders, much closer to home, the Northern Transport Strategy is more rooted in the reality of Northern economic strengths.
Based upon a brand new Independent Economic Review, the strategy identifies strengths that lie outside the big cities: energy, advanced manufacturing, ports and logistics. Transport is needed to support these too – and it needs to be much more joined-up. Hence the emphasis on intra-city transport networks, the integration of different modes of transport, the opportunities presented by smart ticketing, freight and international connectivity too.
Thankfully, it is Transport for the North that will be delegated to spend the Chancellor’s new money and balance the National Infrastructure Commission’s priorities with its own. If history teaches us anything, governments and commissions will come and go, but the institutional capacity being put in place to support Transport for the North will be there for the long-term.
It is absolutely right to harness the momentum – and the funding – that has been generated this week, but the biggest prizes will be awarded to those with well-appraised schemes that properly dovetail into a wider economic strategy. It is time to turn our Northern Transport Strategy into a grown-up Great North Plan.
Ed Cox is director of the IPPR North think-tank. He tweets via @edcox_ippr