Andrew Adonis: How radical devolution can end the North’s rail chaos

How can rail services get back on track?
How can rail services get back on track?
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TRAVELLING between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Hull, York and Newcastle is little faster than 50 years ago, and there is no credible plan to make it better.

Linking the Northern cities in a fast ‘metro’ system is imperative. Jobs and economic growth in the coming decades will be highly concentrated in super-connected urban areas.

Scale and connectivity matters: not for administrative convenience, but because they enable companies and organisation to come together rapidly and efficiently, and it create great places for people to live and have a good time.

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London, the worlds’ greatest city, is so successful partly because it is so brilliantly networked, both within the M25 Greater London area and also to the rich and beautiful towns and cities within commuting distance beyond from St Albans in Hertfordshire to Brighton on the Sussex coast.

The North is full of equally great and beautiful towns and cities, but people and businesses need to be able to get to and between them. Manchester, Huddersfield, Bradford, and Leeds, for example, need be linked by a metro system matching the connectivity of the London Tube. After all, the distance end to end is about the same as London’s east-west Central Line, which runs every few minutes. This is the transformational vision of the Northern Powerhouse.

Unfortunately, as every traveller in the North knows, the train has hit the buffers. The chaos on Northern’s rail services has already cost tens of millions of pounds in lost productivity, and no improvement is in sight. Bold action is needed. The North must be given charge of its own destiny.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s refusal to take responsibility for weeks of delays and disruption for Northern passengers shows why it is imperative to devolve power way from distant and unconcerned ministers in London.

Transport for the North needs power and leadership to match Transport for London. As a big immediate reform, there should be a Commissioner of Transport for the North, on a par with the Commissioner of Transport for London.

This reform is urgent. It is unacceptable that the Northern rail crisis has gone on for four successive Sundays of cancellations, causing 100,000 “lost” train seats. A new Commissioner, accountable to the North, needs to immediately be given power of direction over Northern Rail, TransPennine Express and Network Rail to deal with the rail fiasco.

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Transport for the North needs to immediately be given complete power to deal with the rail fiasco, with a new Commissioner for Transport for the North taking direct personal responsibility. Had the Department for Transport not rejected Transport for the North’s request to be given full control of the Northern rail franchise at its inception, this crisis might have been averted.

It cannot continue. Parliament is now in its fifth week of summer holiday. When it comes back briefly in September, it should put this reform in place with special legislation. If this crisis had taken place in London, this would have happened weeks ago.

Constitutional reform is also essential to the success of the Northern Powerhouse. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘control or abolish’ agenda demolished independent city and local government and left England over-centralised on Westminster. This has got worse 
with savage Conservative ‘austerity’ cuts to local council funding. The nations and regions which are thriving are those where devolution is most advanced.

London’s mayoralty, created as an early act of the Blair government in 2000 to rectify Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, has been a huge success. So have the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

They demonstrate how quickly bold political leadership can transform a city and seize its imagination and loyalty. London’s mayors have significantly improved the capital’s transport and its infrastructure is now seen as a national and even international exemplar. Manchester’s mayor and ‘super-council’ are beginning a transformation with their new devolved powers, but it needs to be rocket boosted.

Every Northern city region should have a powerful mayor with responsibility for public transport and a Council for the North should be set up and given the power and funding needed to pursue essential infrastructure.

Every Northern city needs to be integrated fully into HS2, whose construction is about to start. The ambition of Northern local leaders for their areas is exciting, and they should now be given the same self-governing opportunities that London and Manchester have seized.

Another key reform to empower Northern England is to replace the House of Lords with a Federal Senate of the nations, cities, and localities of the UK, based in the North of England.

The challenges of regional connectivity would rightly be top of the agenda for this new Federal Senate meeting in one of the Northern cities so poorly networked at present. The Senate would also act fast to correct the egregious funding imbalance where London receives 2.6 times more in transport investment per person than the North.

A Constitutional Convention should meet in the summer of 2019, perhaps in York, where Parliament met frequently after Magna Carta, to make these reforms a reality.

A powerful Commissioner of Transport for the North, strong Mayors in every Northern city, a council of the North, and a Federal Senate of the regions. This new era of radical devolution would truly deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse.

Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer. He is a previous Transport Secretary and the past chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.