One North

Thursday, 28th February 2019

Transport for the North (TfN) released their Strategic Transport Plan to much fanfare this month. It lays bare the outline of the scale of the challenge facing the North in dealing with the chronic historic underinvestment in transport in the North of England, with the overall aim of rebalancing the economy away from London.

Economic forecasting is a dark art, but with an estimated £100bn GVA and 850,000 jobs to play for, the ambition of this plan demonstrates how big the north/south divide has become, and how much it is going to cost to begin closing it. In a post-Brexit world, UK PLC will need a better-connected country and will rely upon the North pulling its weight economically. The cost? £70bn to you and me at a rate of £3-4bn per year. That is £50 per person, per year in the North on top of the planned spend on transport.

Political and business leaders across the north all came together this week at the TfN inaugural conference in Sheffield to launch the Strategic Transport Plan – a detailed 169-page blueprint for transforming transport across the North, improving quality, reliability, and opening up access to the whole of the north to future generations. TfN introduced Gracie to us, a primary school child with ambitions of being the first northern female prime minister who can travel between London and her home in the North with ease. This, TfN tells us, is who this Strategic Transport Plan is for.

We are doing this for our children.

Having floated around the transport industry for the last 15 years, the launch event felt quite different for me. For the first time, we have a coherent plan for the North but crucially, we as the North, are now speaking with one united voice. The Strategic Transport Plan has been signed off by all of TfN’s political partners and is clearly supported by business. Anyone who has stood waiting for the arrival of their delayed sardine-can to take them across the Pennines will surely be fully behind this plan too.

The ball is in the Government’s court now and is up to them to listen. TfN has done something unprecedented and has people across the political spectrum to agree to a plan for the future.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the Dispatches programme on Channel 4 regarding HS2 called ‘The Great Train Robbery’, which pitted the over-budget HS2 scheme against Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the West-East link mooted by TfN in their transport plan. Political leaders of the North are clear, this is not an either-or choice, we need both. A mantra I seemingly keep having to repeat to anyone who reads the negative press around HS2 is “It is not about getting to London faster!”. The benefits to the North are clear, it opens up existing congested routes, lays the foundation for NPR and should be celebrated.

Of course, we need to keep a handle on cost and hold those delivering it to account. There will be some difficult challenges to overcome, but we must keep our eyes on the prize – a prosperous and well connected North for our children.