Unnoticed by many, a significant new transport body is emerging in the North. Following on from the Greater Manchester Agreement, and last week’s announcements about health and social care devolution, this month marks another big step forward for devolution within England.
The five major northern cities – Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield together with Hull and the Humber, have united to form ‘Transport for the North’ – developed in response to the challenge Sir David Higgins set northern cities to bring forward their own investment plans. These have been endorsed by the both the chancellor and shadow chancellor, and taken forward under the Transport for the North banner. In addition, all 30 northern transport authorities have come together with central government, to jointly manage rail franchises in the north, so-called Rail North.
Later this month will mark the next milestone on an important journey for TfN. Building on a great deal of hard work behind-the-scenes, they will publish their interim report.
But this is not just about franchising, or a series of transport schemes and projects doled out by central government. At the moment TfN is in its embryonic phase, but it could be so much more; it could mark a step-change in tackling our age-old and deeply-embedded imbalances, and could be used to underpin the long-term prosperity of the north of England.
To truly address both the economic and political imbalances in this country, this week IPPR North has set out how TfN can become a fully-fledged pan-northern transport authority. Over the next ten years, this body can build capacity and develop its governance so that it is able to take on more powers: over its own devolved budget and long-term investment programme, stations, rolling stock and smart-ticketing. In time it can start to make its own decisions about what the north needs, and be accountable to northerners while it does so.
This governance and accountability are crucial. Replacing barely-accountable national bureaucracies, with barely-accountable northern bureaucracies is not an option. In the first instance, there should be a transport commissioner, held accountable when things go wrong, and appointed by democratically elected local authority leaders. This needs to be kept under review, not just to keep the body responsive to the diverse needs of the north’s population, but more importantly to make sure it is accountable enough to wield these significant powers legitimately.
In the next five years it could start to build up its remit. The Rail North and Transport for the North projects could both come under a new TfN authority, and this body could begin to take on some of the responsibilities of Highways England and Network Rail, pooling capacity from existing transport authorities, and taking on seconded staff from the Department for Transport and its agencies rather than forming a new layer of bureaucrats.
In the final phase of its ten-year development, the potential of this new body becomes truly significant and transformative. Not only could TfN re-tender the Northern and TransPennine franchises, if it wanted to it could bring these into public ownership – much like the recently re-privatised East Coast Main Line, or as is done as a matter of course for some modes in London, and on the continent of Europe.
It could also take ownership of rolling stock and take on station leases, instead of relying on the private companies that currently do so.
The presumption that bringing more of our rail network into public ownership means nationalising – and centralising – rail is profoundly mistaken. Any organisation – public or private – delivering services for northerners, should itself be northern.
This is a big step. Not just for northerners but for anyone concerned that our country is far too centralised. If the north can hold its present course, these are the next steps that should be taken.
Luke Raikes is a research fellow at IPPR North
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