Why not everyone is happy about the Government's latest northern transport announcement

‘The transport network in the north is simply not fit for purpose’ - not the words of the Transport Secretary today, but those of the then Chancellor George Osborne, in 2014, when he pledged to deliver a Northern Powerhouse. Just over six years later, Grant Shapps' promise to give passengers ‘the reliable transport network they deserve as quickly as possible’ sounds incredibly similar. In the world of politics a lot has changed in the past six years, but the daily experience of passengers trying to travel around the north remains very much the same. Government talk about the urgency of improving our trains is one of the few things it seems possible to rely on in an ever-changing political landscape.

Ministers have talked about improving transport so much that at times critics have seen fit to remind them that the scope of ‘levelling up’ needs to go beyond better trains. In the light of the pandemic, one of the architects of the Northern Powerhouse has said he believes education may be more key to improving the prospects of the region. But nonetheless, as Government tries to reset its priorities after months of lockdown, it’s the Transport Secretary who is first out of the traps and smiling for the cameras in the North.

Grant Shapps came to Manchester Piccadilly station to announce £589 million towards the partial electrification of the TransPennine line between Manchester and Leeds, a plan that has been on, suspended, almost scrapped, un-scrapped and re-announced more than anyone would care to remember. The full cost of the project has been estimated to be £5bn, completing the first phase has a price tag of £2.9bn. But the mood in Government and among politicians in the North does seem to be that this work will finally get done. Even without a definite start date, today’s announcement was broadly welcomed by everyone involved.

But behind-the-scenes the announcement of a ‘Northern Transport Acceleration Council’ is more controversial. To passengers who’ve seen too many promises come and go, accelerating anything will sound like a good thing. Dig a little deeper though, and there is little at first glance to split today’s announcement from the words uttered in 2015, when the establishment of Transport for the North was heralded as an opportunity for the north to have ‘a powerful new voice’. While Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham welcomed today’s news, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon says ‘we’ve heard all this before’.

Transport for the North was created to bring together the leaders of the North so they could speak with ‘one voice’ and tell Government which projects they want to get done. Legally, officials in Westminster have to consider the advice given by the body, which represents 15 million people. But its ability to actually get projects started is more-or-less non-existent - Transport for the North has neither the powers, nor the funding, to do anything that the Department for Transport hasn’t signed off.

But in the corridors of Westminster, the mood towards Transport for the North has soured over the years. Officials brief that the organisation has become a ‘talking shop’, causing the Chief Executive Barry White to hit back this week, saying ‘yes, we do talk… we talk with the North’s twenty political figureheads and business groups on their priorities and clear recommendations on the investment the North has long been promised and is well overdue. When we ‘talk’, it’s legal advice to Government on what the North thinks should happen.’ It is rare for this usually moderate body to put out such a sharp statement.

That is, perhaps, part of the problem. Whitehall insiders say that Transport for the North simply hasn’t done enough to be clear about what it wants. A lot of the irritation is said to stem from their handling of Northern Powerhouse Rail, where it is claimed the body did presented clear enough recommendations when Number 10 was ready to get going. Boris Johnson is said to have been ‘frustrated’ at the lack of detail on Northern Powerhouse Rail plans ahead of this year’s budget in March, with officials being told they ‘need to grip’ the situation on behalf of a Government that is less than impressed that ‘there still hasn’t been one route that the North has been able to agree on’. Rightly or wrongly, the blame for that has been laid squarely at Transport for the North’s door.

When meetings involve more than fifty people, who seek to build pan-northern consensus, it’s inevitable there will be disagreements. But Transport for the North point out that the first piece of statutory advice they ever sent down to London was about the TransPennine upgrade announced today - they were asking for it two years ago. There should be no illusion that a major cause of delay on this project has been the processes in Westminster, not the North.

So why was Andy Burnham so keen to offer wholehearted support to the Government’s plans? Because the new ‘acceleration council’ will supposedly give individual leaders a ‘direct line’ to central Government and prevent them having to wait (sometimes for years) for sign off on individual schemes. The Greater Manchester mayor has an ‘integrated ticketing system’ at the top of his wish list, clearly hoping that his show of solidarity will win him the improvements he wants to see.

Andy Burnham did add that the new council should be ‘accountable to people here through their elected politicians and bodies such as Transport for the North’, but there are fears among some leaders that the announcement will leave Transport for the North severely weakened. Passengers may give relatively little thought to the future of an organisation that has at times been criticised for its line-up of ‘white men in suits’. But if the Government’s new strategy does diminish a body that represents people from the North West across to the North East and down to Yorkshire, what does that mean for the north’s ability to speak with ‘one voice’?

That’s not necessarily a problem for Andy Burnham, at a time when ‘levelling up’ and ‘paying back northern voters’ is high on the Government’s list of priorities. Greater Manchester now contains a significant number of marginal seats, where the Conservatives will be keen to show their worth ahead of the next General Election. For the Greater Manchester mayor, his next election is next year. He's keen to have further transport improvements under his belt before then. 

But what does all this mean for cities like Liverpool, where the political landscape is much more solidly red. Will they now lose out, if the new Council chooses to accelerate projects in former ‘red wall’ seats that the Conservatives want to hold? Northern leaders have long argued that they shouldn’t have to compete against each other - the Government should be able and willing to fund a whole range of projects across the whole of the North. But when the political agenda changes, and the North is not centre of attention, will leaders up here find their ability to deliver change has been weakened, rather than strengthened with extra powers and a devolved budget they continue to demand?

With regard to transport improvements, very few people care how they happen - as long as they do, and the sooner the better. But while speed is of the essence, so is long-term strategy. That's true of politics too - and for now it remains unclear what the quick wins of today mean for the power of the whole of the north tomorrow.

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