One of the architects of the Northern Powerhouse project has called on Theresa May and two of her senior Cabinet colleagues to explicitly commit to giving the North’s strategic transport body the same powers as its counterpart in London.
Former Treasury minister Lord Jim O’Neill says the May Government has failed to demonstrate its enthusiasm for the strategy designed to improve the economic performance of the North’s big cities.
He believes the lack of enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse, a project launched by George Osborne during his time as Chancellor, has allowed the Department for Transport to “water down” plans to give new powers to Transport for the North.
It emerged last month that unlike Transport for London, TfN, the organisation created to re-shape transport across the region, is set to be given the right “to provide advice” to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling on the region’s needs, effectively giving him the power of veto.
This means that Transport for the North will not have the decision-making powers and ability to raise money enjoyed by its equivalent body in London.
Lord O’Neill told The Yorkshire Post that transport was vital for the Northern Powerhouse to succeed and that TfN eventually needed to be as powerful as Transport for London, even if this did not happen straight away.
He said: “What I would really like to see is all three, the Transport Secretary, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister collectively making a statement, saying that in time they are committed to TfN having the same powers as Transport for London.
“It would make me a lot more relaxed and they would be doing themselves a favour.
“One of the things that was so helpful about [David] Cameron and Osborne is that they constantly made reference to the Northern Powerhouse, which sent a message to places like the Middle East that this was a serious policy priority. They need to understand that by varying the message, it makes businesspeople less confident in investing in this stuff themselves.”
Crossbench peer Lord O’Neill, who was Commercial Secretary at the Treasury between May 2015 and September 2016, said that in contrast to the previous Prime Minister, he feared Mrs May would “say the right thing when forced by the attention that the media helps create, but they never really follow on any of it”.
Fears have been growing about the commitment of Mr Grayling to providing the necessary investment for transport in the North. This year, he cancelled the electrification of the Midland Mainline, and said he was reappraising planned improvements to the trans-Pennine line between Leeds and Manchester. Last week, he angered MPs by failing to attend a debate on the issue.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said it was “committed to turning the vision of a Northern Powerhouse into a reality” and had “launched the biggest modernisation programme of railways in the North since the steam age”.
She said: “We are carrying out the biggest investment in transport in the north of England for a generation, investing billions of pounds to better connect communities, build the Northern Powerhouse and deliver improved journeys for passengers. All trains on the Northern route will be brand new or refurbished by 2020. We have also given Transport for the North £60m to develop plans and look forward to working with them once proposals are submitted.”