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Interview | Barry White, Transport for the North

Barry white tfn (30) crop

Economics is at the heart of Transport for the North’s (TfN) 30-year transport strategy, says chief executive Barry White (pictured).

He is speaking to New Civil Engineer ahead of the inaugural meeting of TfN’s member local authorities held at Liverpool’s Mann Island next door to regeneration success story Albert Dock.

TfN is the UKs first sub-national transport body . “Our plan is as much an economic plan as it is a transport plan.”

Good for the UK

“Our big argument and point we will continue to make is that this is good for all of the UK. A stronger North, a rebalanced UK economy, is good for UK plc,” he says.

The strategy behind the £70bn transport plan is to connect the North’s major cities and industrial hubs to unlock economic potential. If the proposals are carried out in full, the North could see a £100bn increase in gross value added (GVA) and the creation of 850,000 additional jobs by 2050.

The challenge to transform transport infrastructure is a big one. Currently, only 10,000 residents in the North live within a 60 minute train journey of four or more major cities, and only 10% of businesses are based within an hour and a half journey of four or more cities.

About businesses

“This is about businesses being able to connect better, with more ease of where they work. It’s about businesses choosing to invest in the North and knowing they can have access to a wider skills market,” White continues.

He adds: “If you’re a business person [in Liverpool], it’s as easy to go to a meeting in London as it is to go to a meeting in York.

“What we’re trying to do is make it easier for businesses to function [in the North] and with a long-term plan it lets businesses see that there is a plan to connect up.”

That is where TfN’s headline-grabbing flagship project Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) comes in. It is designed to slash journey times between major cities via a trans-Pennine rail network stretching from Liverpool to Hull with connections to Cumbria and the North East.

If the NPR vision is realised, the number of people living within a 60-minute journey of four or more major cities would increase to 1.3M, according to TfN statistics. This will create more economic fluidity and allow employees to move jobs without being forced to move to a new house, says White. An improved transport system will allow the North to function as a single economy.

New rail links

TfN’s draft strategic plan outlines proposals for a new line between Liverpool and the High Speed 2 Manchester spur via Warrington. It also includes a plan to increase capacity at Manchester Piccadilly to eight through trains per hour, and a new line connecting one of the Manchester stations with Leeds via Bradford.

Upgrades are also proposed for the Hope Valley line between Sheffield and Manchester via Stockport, to the East Coast mainline, the Leeds to Hull line via Selby and the Sheffield to Hull route via Doncaster.

TfN is also lobbying the government to recognise more Northern roads as strategically important. In the North, only 2% of the road network is considered strategically important by the government, but TfN’s Major Road Network represents about 7% of the highways.

Becoming a statutory body is key to the success of TfN’s £70bn plan, says White.

“In looking at how the big urban areas are connected together, I think that needs a pan-Northern approach to get the plans pulled together in a cohesive way,” he says.

Statutory footing

“Having that statutory footing that allows us to pull those plans together and present them to government as a statutory body is a very, very strong thing indeed.”

However, critics of TfN have slammed the transport body for its perceived lack of power, particularly in comparison to Transport for London (TfL).  

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott stormed out of the launch of its strategic plan telling the BBC: “It was promised to have statutory powers. Now we know, and it’s been confirmed by the government, it will have no powers.”

“It can talk to the Treasury along with the strategic bodies, but it can’t make a decision and it doesn’t get any money. It’s a bloody fraud,” he said.

TfN cannot borrow money or raise revenue, so will be primarily reliant on central government funding.

Responding to the criticism White says, “We’re not Transport for London, we’re Transport for the North, we’re different.

More poweful than TfL

“If you look at the powers TfL has, and the powers that combined authorities have in the North, like Greater Manchester combined authority and Transport for Greater Manchester, the powers that local authorities have, and the powers that we have, I would argue that they are collectively greater or as great as TfL.”

TfN will work with local authorities to help them implement improved transport systems within the cities. But it will not be the guiding force.

“When they’re looking at urban transportation, we will help to make sure it ties in with that pan-northern connectivity, but one thing we’re not doing is pulling power up from them.

“This is about devolving power from London to the North, not about hoovering power up from the existing authorities that are there.

“It’s about working together on these issues, there is no desire or need to change that relationship.”

Innovation will be important over the course of the 30-year plan, White acknowledges, particularly within the urban areas TfN will support.  

Big changes in next 10 year

“I think we’re at a very exciting stage for transport planning, where it will change more in the next 10 years than it has changed in the last 30 or 40 years.

“Particularly in our urban areas, these disruptive technologies [such as autonomous vehicles] will have a massive impact,” he says.

“As we plan a pan-northern connectivity, we must look at how that’s going to feed into this changing landscape in the urban areas. If you look at something like Northern Powerhouse Rail, will there still be a need for that type of investment?

“I believe absolutely, but I think what’s really important is that when you arrive in Darlington and get off, it’s how you then feed into that urban network that I think will be key.”

The government’s move to give TfN a statutory footing comes amid a wider political drive to ensure that infrastructure investment is aimed at improving economic productivity.

The potential to deliver major change has been laid out in theory, now it’s time to put it into practice.


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