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Power in the North

24 July 2020

Governments tend to want to see things happen – and to get the credit. And often they see shake-ups to organisational structures as a quick-fix when they fear they are not going to have enough achievements to show the electorate in their term.

So there may be some hurt feelings this week at Transport for the North in the light of the announcement by transport secretary Grant Shapps that he is establishing a new ‘Northern Transport Acceleration Council’ dedicated to speeding up the delivery of new infrastructure projects better connecting communities across the north’s towns and cities. The new Council, led by Shapps himself, will give northern leaders a claimed “direct line to ministers” to accelerate transport projects. And Shapps also offers support to the new body’s work to drive progress across the north through DfT staff based in northern cities.

The last decade has seen a flurry of announcements about new ways of devolving power and resources to help ‘left behind Britain’, putting a plethora of sometimes competing hands on the tiller. Combined authorities; regional/metropolitan transport agencies; LEPs; mayors (city and regional); and various pots of money for individual initiatives have all been boiling away in a not always clear and logical stew.

Some of the agents have performed well, grabbed the ball and run with it, achieving identifiable outcomes of value to local citizens and economies. Others have gone round in circles, created logos and organograms, spent funds on studies and strategies, commissioned projects and initiatives – and not been able to deliver them. The multi-modal, multi-operator smart ticketing scheme, recently dropped by Transport for the North, springs to mind. 

In this context, and the Government’s broader political agenda to ‘level up’ things in the north, and support its election gains in Labour’s red wall northern seats, it can’t really be surprising that ministers are stepping in personally when it once seemed that delivery would be left to new local leaderships. 

Any critique by the transport cognoscenti of this seemingly pointless musical chairs is likely to be rather lost in the rough and tumble of national politics, and Downing Street’s and individual ministers’ wish to get things done. Whether they will be able to do so will become apparent in the fullness of time. But given the shifting sands of government, it’s a fair bet that Grant Shapps won’t still be transport secretary then.

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