The government this week announced the creation of a Northern Transport Acceleration Council to fast-track transport projects across the region, in what is being seen as a snub to Transport for the North (TfN).
Transport secretary and Northern Powerhouse minister Grant Shapps will chair the council, whose membership will be the council leaders and elected mayors from across the region. Its first meeting will be in September.
The DfT said the council would give northern leaders a “direct line” to ministers to accelerate transport projects and “cut bureaucracy and red tape”. It will be supported by DfT staff based in northern cities and “dedicated to delivering for the North”.
Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said the announcement showed sub-national transport body TfN was being sidelined. “Whilst we welcome an announcement of devolution of transport powers [to the council], we’ve heard all this before. Transport for the North was set up to deliver the same aims as this new body, yet it had its roles and responsibilities pulled from underneath it.”
An article in the The Sunday Times last weekend, previewing this week’s announcement, suggested ministers regard TfN as a “talking shop”.
This prompted TfN chief executive Barry White to write a lengthy defence of the organisation for its website. “Transport for the North was established with limited powers, mainly to provide advice to Government and so, yes, we do talk,” he said. “We talk with the North’s 20 political figureheads and business groups on their priorities and clear recommendations on the investment the North has long been promised and is well overdue. But we do not have the powers or devolved budget to instruct work or take the decisive action that we all collectively need. A situation we hope will soon change.”
TfN has argued for a devolved budget and decision-making powers. But the DfT this week indicated that it did not share this vision of a more powerful TfN.
A DfT spokeswoman told LTT: “The Northern Transport Acceleration Council will give leaders from the North direct access to ministers to make sure the Department can prioritise and accelerate projects, utilising their local knowledge and expertise, and enabling them to hold ministers accountable on delivering for their local area at pace.
“The TfN board will continue to provide a useful forum for stakeholders to consider strategic transport priorities, bringing together members and developing strategic advice for the Department.
“TfN’s statutory roles and responsibilities will continue and the Department will continue to work with them on the delivery of their statutory functions.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said this week’s announcement felt “like a gear change from the Government in the delivery of transport improvements in the North of England”.
“My top priority is to build a London-style, integrated public transport system in Greater Manchester and I look forward to working with the secretary of state on making this vision a reality.”
Following the formal announcement of the new council, TfN’s Barry White said: “We welcome the announcement of a Northern Transport Acceleration Council and a DfT North; it is important that TfN, reflecting the voice of the 15 million people in the North, and the new organisations, work in partnership to build back better and level up.”
The Government this week announced £589m for design and enabling works on the first stage of upgrading the Transpennine railway between Manchester and Leeds via Huddersfield.
The DfT says the first stage of the Transpennine Route Upgrade programme will include partial electrification of the line, a new through platform at Huddersfield, and about eight miles of four-tracking.
“Most of the line will be electrified, and our ambition is to go further,” said the DfT.
Full electrification, digital signalling, more multi-tracking and improved freight capacity are being considered. A decision will be announced in the integrated rail plan for the Midlands and the North, which will be published in December (see page 5).
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