A Powerhouse proposal

June 4, 2019

Five years on from the Northern Powerhouse’s unveiling, the focus on fostering economic growth and increased productivity to even the North-South divide has arguably never been stronger. A key element within this drive is enhanced connectivity across rail and road links, with Transport for the North leading a push to deliver significant infrastructure improvements. Steven Hugill speaks to Jeremy Bloom, the organisation’s strategy and programme director, to find out more about its blueprint for growth

Politicians and football can make for a troublesome combination.

Take former Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, who once appeared to confuse his allegiance for Aston Villa with a following for West Ham. Then there’s Arsenal fan Jeremy Corbyn, who incurred the wrath of his Gunners brethren by congratulating arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur for reaching the Champions League final.

So it was perhaps brave that former Chancellor George Osborne elected to use the Beautiful Game as a crutch to launch his Northern Powerhouse vision back in 2014.

“There is a hard truth we need to address,” said Mr Osborne in Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum, “that we need to bring the cities of the North together – that’s how Britain will beat the rest.

“If you brought together the best players from each of the Premiership teams in the North,” he went on, “you would have a team that would wipe the floor with any competition.”

The number of Newcastle United players that would make the cut in Mr Osborne’s hypothetical squad is probably a debate left for the footballing purists, but you could see where he was going with his point.

For the North to succeed, he said, its cities must come together – much like a football coach marries players’ individual attributes to create a rounded team – with a united voice and outlook to deliver meaningful, long-term productivity and prosperity capable of closing the North-South divide.

That was five years ago, and Mr Osborne has since swapped Westminster for editorship of the London Evening Standard, though he does remain chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, an independent body providing a voice of business and civic leaders.

Through his groundwork, however, the Northern Powerhouse is part of the Government’s industrial strategy, with connectivity and transport one of its key pillars.

Transport has long been a bone of contention in the North, with both road and rail links the source of much debate, and in terms of the North East’s infrastructure, the need for improvements has arguably never been greater.

Step forward then Transport for the North (TfN), England’s first sub-national transport body. Bringing together the North’s 20 local transport

authorities and business leaders alongside Network Rail, Highways England and HS2 Ltd – the organisation behind the UK’s high-speed rail development – TfN is working with Westminster to deliver tangible infrastructure change to drive economic growth.

The body previously published its Strategic Transport Plan, a blueprint it says will help rebalance decades of underinvestment by outlining how up to £70 billion of investment to 2050 could contribute towards an additional £100 billion in economic growth for the North’s economy, creating, it says, 850,000 extra jobs.

The plan has three key aims; connect people, connect businesses and support the movement of goods.

“There is a realisation across the North that we have to reverse the decline and it is all about making the North much better as a cohesive unit,” says Jeremy Bloom, TfN’s newly-appointed strategy and programme director, who will lead on the delivery of the Strategic Transport Plan.

“We have been punching below our weight in the region and it’s important now that we get the investment to realise the economic benefits.

“It is imperative if we want to close the gap between the South and North.

“The reaction has been very positive; businesses and local authorities are really behind it.

“Nationally too, the Prime Minister and Chancellor have given their support to Northern Powerhouse Rail,” adds Jeremy, who lists roles at Highways England and Network Rail on his CV.

“It is absolutely up there on the radar now because there is the understanding that if the North is doing better economically, then all of the UK is.

“However, it is not a quick fix, it will take time because of the previous underinvestment in the North’s infrastructure.

“There are challenges too – the North has, at times, not been able to speak with one voice about what is needs.

“Newcastle’s needs are different to Manchester’s needs and Northumberland’s needs, for example. But what we are trying to do is speak on behalf of the North to make a case for investment in schemes that will deliver economic growth.”

One of the fundamental elements of TfN’s Strategic Transport Plan is its Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, which
gained renewed support from the Chancellor during his Spring Statement in March.

Representing an investment of up to £39 billion, it is designed to transform connectivity between the North’s key economic centres by improving services’ capacity, speed and resilience.

Crucially, the blueprint is predicated upon working alongside HS2, rather than being a stand-alone alternative.

According to TfN’s plan, Northern Powerhouse Rail would put 15,000 extra businesses and 300,000 more people within 90 minutes of Newcastle by using a HS2 East Coast Main Line connection to Leeds.

When combined with a scheduled Transpennine route improvement and HS2, TfN says its proposal would cut journey time from Middlesbrough to Manchester and Liverpool by 40 minutes and 50 minutes, respectively, and make Sunderland services to Manchester nearly an hour faster.

Furthermore, it says the above changes would also trim 20 minutes off journeys to Manchester from Durham and Darlington stations – the latter the subject of an ambitious redevelopment proposal to build new platforms and improve track layout and signalling – with the number rising to 50 minutes with Northern Powerhouse Rail factored into the equation.

“The North needs HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail – it isn’t one or the other – and the North East would benefit from HS2 because of the connections near York,” says Jeremy, who, in a previous role at Network Rail was route strategy manager for the £2 billion East Coast Main Line upgrade.

“Northern Powerhouse Rail goes much further for the North because it connects the six core cities, including Newcastle, as well as Manchester Airport.

“It will create jobs and opportunities and mean people would be able to go from Liverpool to Newcastle in around two hours, for example.

“For a working parent in Leeds, it would mean they could quite easily commute to Newcastle, which is quite challenging at the moment.

“It would also help connect businesses better, for example a firm in Rochdale supplying parts for manufacture in Darlington.

“We are working very closely with HS2 Limited and the Department for Transport to make it happen.”

TfN’s Strategic Transport Plan also highlights the need for strong road links to maintain good connections between the North’s ports and airports, business hubs, enterprise zones, city centres and tourist hotspots.

Highways England has a number of proposals for the North East, which include dualling existing single carriageway sections of the A1 in Northumberland, between Morpeth and Felton, and from Alnwick to Ellingham.

The organisation is also looking to build on the addition of extra lanes to the A1 at Team Valley. It plans to make improvements to the section between Birtley and Coal House, in the shadows of the Angel of the North, by replacing the Allerdene bridge that carries traffic over the East Coast Main Line.

By ensuring the infrastructure is robust, TfN’s Strategic Transport Plan says the North would benefit from greater international connectivity, a more joined-up business community and growth in key employment and housing sites.

By supporting Highways England and local transport and highway authorities, TfN says it will ensure that evidence gathering, network planning, the provision of journey information, and traffic and performance management decisions are developed and delivered collaboratively to ensure a fully rounded approach to achieving better travel experiences and improved safety, economic and community outcomes.

It also says it will also explore options for reducing the impact of road-based travel on the environment, air quality and carbon emissions, including exploring how Highways England’s Air Quality Strategy could be expanded.

Reflecting on the need for road improvements, Jeremy says: “The A1 between Leeming Bar and Barton, in North Yorkshire, has been converted into motorway, which has closed the motorway gap between London and Newcastle.

“There are other road schemes too. Major consultation is now underway about improving the A66 by dualling the remaining single carriageway sections between Scotch Corner and Penrith.”

So is he confident TfN’s vision for a more connected and therefore more productive and prosperous North will materialise?

“Things are moving forward but we need to see more. Our investment programme is not a wish-list, it is evidence-based work focused upon delivering pan-Northern benefits.

“What we are seeing is the first part of the journey.”

Transport for the North

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