Earlier this month Transport for the North (TfN) adopted its formal statutory powers and in doing so became England’s first sub-national transport body; a move the government said would give the North a “greater influence over transport investment than ever before”.
The body will advise government on future transport strategy; work to deliver a smart ticketing system across the North; act as a statutory partner in road and rail investment decisions; oversee (jointly with DfT) franchised rail services; and work with relevant partners to construct new roads.
The potential exists to radically transform the regions connectivity and underpin long-term economic prosperity. Transport infrastructure plays a vital part in raising productivity and efficiency, it helps unlock development opportunities and allows businesses and people to plan and invest. The historic lack of investment, and its impact on the Northern economy, is a major theme throughout the TfN’s £70bn masterplan – which sets of the case for a 30-year road and rail upgrade scheme, which they say has the potential to create 850,000 jobs and boost the region’s economy by £100bn.
There are reasons to be cautiously hopeful that this time could be the ‘watershed’ moment some have suggested. TfN will finally mean that it is those who live, work and travel in the North who will make the recommendations for what and where investment is needed. This should make them extremely difficult to ignore, especially when you consider just how collaborative the body will be – bringing together the five major cities of the North in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield; including two Metro Mayors, along with representatives from smaller towns and cities.
Crucially, unlike Transport for London, TfN will not have the power to generate its own income and no assurances have been given regarding per head funding parity. This is something that has outraged many, not least John Prescott who declared that the whole thing was a ‘bloody fraud’. Critics will feel vindicated in their scepticism; age-old imbalances in transport investment means that strong emotions and mistrust are to be expected. There is a credible fear that what the government is offering TfN is significant responsibility with little in the way of real authority.
Yet the Metro Mayors and devolved city regions have so far succeeded in moving the fight for Northern transport investment far away from Westminster. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have already demonstrated that a collaborative approach can be influential, for them TfN can be a powerful asset – which they will seek to exploit, pushing for further powers to be devolved sooner rather than later.
Ultimately only time will tell if this is a government seriously embracing devolution, or whether it is just the smokescreen critics fear. But should it be the latter, they can expect a powerful and united backlash.