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Transport for the North: It's Transport, Stupid

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Photo by St BC (Wikimedia Commons)

'Transport For The North' sounds more like an enthusiastic response to the question 'what do we want?' - before the traditional follow-on of 'when do we want it?' - than the slightly less exciting reality of a newly-created statutory body.

Since its inception last year, TfN has sought unity and clarity from an astonishing 56 local authorities and 19 transport authorities in a broad area running from South Yorkshire up to the Scottish border. It launched its Strategic Transport Plan at its first conference in February this year.

The case for change will be familiar to anyone who has languished in an overcrowded rush hour train from Sheffield to Leeds or found their 40-mile journey to Manchester taking them two hours or more. The figures make stark reading. A recent report found that annual spending on transport per capita in Yorkshire and the Humber in 2016-17 was just £190, compared to £1,943 in London. It will also come as no surprise that the North's economy is lagging behind London's, with average earnings around £8,000 less, 17% fewer people reaching high educational attainment and plenty of less measurable but no less negative health outcomes.

If [the North] were a country it would have the 27th largest economy in the world

I have long been frustrated by local transport failures and had always thought the case for change was one of basic fairness. Why, in a rich country, is good transport infrastructure reserved for just one region? However, I've been learning that if our chance of leading better lives really is 'the economy, stupid', then the key to transforming that economy is transport.

The numbers are big, optimistic and vital. Adoption of TfN's Strategic Plan could lead to £97 billion a year value added to the North's economy and 850,000 more jobs over a 30-year period. Steve Rotherham, Liverpool's charismatic metro mayor, suggested that as many as 150,000,000 miles of HGV journeys could be replaced by rail freight annually, a key target for decarbonisation. The North has a population of 15 million. If it were a country it would have the 27th largest economy in the world. It has the energy capacity to power the entire UK. It's a world leader in many fields, but people need to reach each other. Businesses need to share supply chains and skillsets and build centres of expertise.

Of the many stark revelations at the conference, perhaps one of the most shocking came from Andy Koss, CEO of Drax power station in North Yorkshire. Currently supplying around 6% of the UK's entire energy supply, it relies on daily shipments of biomass pellets. After landing in the UK, their convoluted, overlong journey takes around nine hours to cover 40 miles. Should any step in this unnecessarily complex transport system fail, Drax has just ten days supply before the lights go out, literally.

TfN is looking to spend £70 billion between now and 2050 and has a detailed and ambitious plan of various strategic corridors where the greatest value can be sought. Locally this could see an upgraded Hope Valley line to Manchester and a Trans-Pennine road tunnel, alongside plenty of smaller projects.

TfN's greatest achievement so far is getting the local governments of the North to speak with a unified voice. You may remember how local parochialism and in-fighting scuppered the Sheffield City Region devolution deal. A project of this size will never be delivered without the collective will of every civic leader, but all talk at the conference was of 'when' and 'how'; there was a collective sense of optimism that the 'if' was taken care of.

Ben Eckersley

Next article in issue 132

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