Exclusive interview with Barry White, Chief Executive of TfN.
The struggle for parity between spending on the north and south of England is nothing new; for years, northern leaders have felt that spending in the capital has not been matched elsewhere – an imbalance that must change if the economy is to thrive.
Recent studies have found that spending per capita on transport is much higher in London than northern regions.
That is why the work of Transport for the North is so important. Transport Britain spoke to the organisation’s Chief Executive, Barry White, who explained the achievements of the Transport Body up to now, and how it is helping to re-shape government priorities.
This is an excerpt of the interview that appears in issue 10 of Transport Britain.
When was Transport for the North formed and what is its purpose?
Transport for the North became England’s first Sub-national Transport Body in April 2018, following three years of partnership working to establish a shared vision for the North. We bring together the North’s 20 Local Transport Authorities and 11 Local Enterprise Partnerships to speak with one voice on the transport infrastructure our region needs to thrive.
Our statutory status empowers our Members to formally make the case to Government for strategic investment in the North’s transport infrastructure. It also formalises our relationship with Network Rail and Highways England so we can inform their investment programmes, based on the will of communities, passengers and businesses.
By making the case for pan-Northern strategic transport investments we can help the people and businesses of the North unlock their potential by ensuring they have a reliable, efficient and resilient way to move around.
How has the organisation changed the way central Government thinks and looks at transport needs in the region?
I’d argue that investment in the North’s transport network has never been higher up the national agenda. That is in part down to the relentless work of the political and business leaders who sit on our Board to draw attention to the economic imbalance and put forward positive, solid arguments for where investments should be made.
That was typified in our Strategic Transport Plan – a blueprint that all Northern leaders signed off. It means rather than piecemeal projects that may not be supported in isolation, the Government has a coherent and integrated strategy for right across the North. More importantly, they hear one voice – which has got louder over time – on the ambitions of the North. Our ability to give statutory advice compels the Government to take that voice into account when making decisions.
What have been the most important factors in driving this change?
By offering a platform to speak with one voice on the challenges and opportunities the North faces, we are in a unique position to ensure our region is heard. The initial driving force was a desire to connect the North’s great places like never before, and in doing so, allow them to act as a One North economy, one that is greater than the sum of its parts and addresses the economic imbalance between the North and other parts of the UK.
That core mission – to drive opportunity by transforming connectivity – still stands today. But issues such as the May 2018 timetable chaos have laid bare the challenges on our rail network. Issues such as Brexit have focused minds on how goods reach our shores and then move around the North, and how that needs to be improved. These factors have emboldened everyone who supports our cause and made the need for change more acute.
Do you think central Government fully understand the needs of the North?
Yes, I think that they increasingly do. There’s been a resounding drumbeat around the needs of the North to the point where it is impossible to ignore. From the Prime Minister and Chancellor, to opposition parties and MPs from across the North, they have all expressed both awareness and support for the need to change and made pledges to address it.
This is in no small part thanks to our Members speaking loudly about the challenges facing our North when it comes to transport. We enjoy a positive relationship with the Government and Department for Transport, and that collaboration has meant we’ve had the time and the means to make compelling arguments clear.
What are the main achievements since the inception of Transport for the North?
In our first 18 months as a Sub-national Transport Body we have already made great strides in advocating for increased transport investment in our region.
We’ve agreed and submitted the Strategic Transport Plan – the first of its kind for a region and a comprehensive plan for the future.
A highlight has also been submitting the Strategic Outline Business Case for the Northern Powerhouse Rail network, and securing pledges from various political parties to deliver that project.
Momentum is also growing around our call for a ‘Northern Budget’, a clear set of asks for the North for the coming years, one which we’ll continue to advocate to ensure that funds are secured in the short-term, to deliver the early improvements over the next decade.