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Northern Transport Council ‘no substitute for devolution’ – TfN

Governance

07 August 2020
 

The Government’s new Northern Transport Acceleration Council does not remove the need for decision-making and budgets to be devolved to the north of England, Transport for the North (TfN) has said.  

Ministers announced the formation of the new council  to accelerate major northern transport projects last month (LTT 24 Jul). Chaired by transport secretary Grant Shapps, its membership will be the council leaders and elected mayors from across the region. 

The body will be supported by a northern branch of the DfT, expected to be named DfT North.

News of the arrangements first broke in a newspaper article   that said ministers regard TfN as a “talking shop” and want to take control of matters themselves. 

The arrangements are also being seen as an effort by the Government to ensure it receives the credit for transport delivery in the North,  strengthening the Conservative Party’s support base in the region.

The new arrangements appear to be a blow to TfN’s ambition to manage a devolved budget for strategic transport infrastructure.  A DfT spokeswoman told LTT last month that TfN would “continue to provide a useful forum for stakeholders to consider strategic transport priorities”.

But TfN looks set to proceed with making its case for more  responsibility in its submission to the Treasury’s spending review. 

In a report to TfN’s board last week, strategy and programme director David Hughes welcomed the Government’s announcement of the Northern Transport Acceleration Council (NTAC), “insofar as it enables the accelerated delivery of much needed Northern infrastructures schemes”. 

“It is, however, important to recognise that, based on our understanding to date of the proposed remit of the committee, its role will be to accelerate scheme delivery but only within the broad parameters of the existing investment decision-making and delivery structures, under which all the meaningful levers of control (investment decision- making, business case processes, delivery body oversight) are vested in central government.” 

Hughes said NTAC did not therefore “alter the fundamental contention” that devolution of budgetary control over the investment pipeline for Northern strategic transport infrastructure was a prerequisite to the delivery of TfN’s strategic transport plan objectives.

NTAC’s formation could be “welcomed as an interim step that could help accelerate scheme delivery, [but] it does not achieve the same end as is sought under the proposals developed under the auspices of the Northern Transport Compact [TfN’s core ambitions, including the North having more control over transport budgets]”.

“It may, however, mean a phased approach to devolution, focusing first on the powers and funding to commission early scheme viability assessments, in effect forming the future investment pipeline.”

In this scenario, the Government would give TfN in the first instance a budget to fund a pipeline of projects to a state of readiness for delivery. “The funding would be used principally to engage national agencies, partners, or other consultants, to do work on our behalf, subject to baselining to avoid displacement of existing agency budgets,” said Hughes.

In the longer-term TfN wants to become the “ultimate decision-making body for enhancement decisions, across road, and rail track and train services in the North”. 

It envisages managing a multi-year, mulit-modal budget. This would not include the largest infrastructure schemes, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, which would continue to be made by the Government. Nor would it include local transport schemes – decisions on these would be made through a future version of the Local Growth Fund and/or devolution deals.

With a bigger decision-making remit, TfN says it would appoint a commissioner to “ensure that the ambitions and direction of the board is undertaken by the delivery bodies”. 

 
 
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