Connectivity in the North: Where are we?

June 4, 2019

Asks Todd Rayner, a solicitor in the transport department at Womble Bond Dickinson

There is a sizeable productivity gap between the North and South. The North’s economic value, as GVA, has persistently hovered around 15 per cent below the national average – and data shows that the gap is widening.

Back in 2016, an Economic Review published by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership – which includes business leaders and Transport for the North (TfN) – identified contributory factors as underinvestment in infrastructure, inadequate transport links and a lack of collaboration between Northern economic centres.

It would seem, therefore, that for some time there has been a recognition that improving connectivity in the North is critical to closing the productivity gap and for the delivery of inclusive, sustainable economic growth.

Separately, the great cities of the North can look for inspiration to cities around the globe. For example, Toronto’s Smart City Sandbox led by IBI Group is focussing on the development of high-tech products designed to alleviate the strains on heavily-populated urban environments, such as traffic lights which autonomously respond to levels of congestion.

So, what is happening?

Since 2018, a range of statutory powers has been devolved to TfN, which has brought together 20 Northern local transport authorities, alongside Network Rail, Highways England, HS2 Limited and business leaders. In addition to liaising with central Government on investment decisions, TfN has responsibility for the construction of new roads and, alongside the Department for Transport, oversees the Northern and TransPennine Express rail franchises.

TfN’s road improvement programme will focus on relieving congestion pinch-points and delivering upgrades, while its rail strategy will support the enhancement of both passenger and freight services through infrastructure and rolling stock upgrades. In the longer-term TfN is seeking to increase resilience, speed and capacity of the North’s rail network through new lines and further upgrades. Under its plans, by 2050 the number of Northern businesses within 90 minutes of four or more major economic centres would increase threefold and ten million people would be within 90 minutes of multiple economic centres. TfN is also currently leading an initiative to roll-out a smart ticketing system, which will allow passengers to switch easily between rail, buses and light rail.

TfN’s plans also have international connectivity in mind. It is estimated that the North is missing out on four million air passengers each year, highlighting the importance of increasing the number of destinations and frequency of services. A better- connected North will not only benefit from increased visitor numbers, but will also promote international trade and investment.

The devolution of powers to TfN will enable the North to take control of its transport infrastructure and to deliver much-needed development and investment. The resultant benefits could be substantial; TfN estimates that £70 billion of investment to 2050 could help generate 850,000 jobs and £100 billion in economic growth.

However, the powers granted to TfN need to be supported by investment. In the Autumn Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond confirmed £37 million of development funding for Northern Powerhouse Rail. While this is a welcome start, this sum obviously falls far short of both the £70 billion estimated by TfN and the current major investments in HS2 and Crossrail in London. Clearly, TfN and the North still need to lobby hard to make the case with central Government for the investment necessary to deliver the connectivity that the North desperately needs.

Womble Bond Dickinson

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