Mass-transit rail and tram are key to levelling up North’s cities – Martin McKervey

WITH the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic now hopefully behind us, the Government is beginning to turn its attention to its major policy pledge: levelling up the UK economy.

Martin McKervey

While ‘levelling up’ is a term coined by this Government, it is not a new idea. It has existed in different forms for nearly a decade since George Osborne, the then Chancellor, declared an ambition to rebalance the UK economy and launched 
the Northern Powerhouse initiative.

Since then, some cities have benefited from moves to de-centralise the economy but we have lacked a coherent plan for how to ensure regional towns and cities can truly punch their weight.

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One of the fundamental issues has been a lack of urgency and vision on the delivery of transport infrastructure.

Light rail is key to the revival of UK cities, according to Martin McKervey.

By any measure, the delivery of mass-transit rail and tram systems in the UK over the past 20 years has been disappointing.

This is holding back growth and productivity, and as car ownership declines amongst younger generations, and 
cities continue to expand, the problem is going to become more acute.

The Sheffield Property Association, alongside the London Property Alliance, released a new white paper, authored by JLL, which looks at the vital role rapid-transit systems play in regional economies and recommending a new approach to planning, funding and delivering projects that will help drive levelling up. The success of the UK depends upon transforming the economy of the North and Midlands – particularly the core cities of Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds.

HS2, as a means of connecting the north and south, clearly has a role, but as the report highlights, there is a pressing need for greater connectivity within and between our core cities.

George Osborne was the architect of the Northern Powerhouse.

As the report argues, one of the fundamental reasons for the UK’s poor track record of delivering transport infrastructure has been an overly-centralised approach to the planning and funding of schemes.

Devolving greater powers to metro mayors and combined authorities, whilst sharing expertise and best practice, would enable our city regions to design, fund and deliver locally supported projects.

Funding, particularly in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic which has placed huge strain on the public finances, is another critical issue.

We must adopt new ways of attracting private investment to unlock projects.

How can light rail transform UK cities?

As our study shows, there is a wall of patient capital waiting to be deployed into infrastructure projects – however, the challenge in securing this investment is creating robust long-term income streams, beyond fare revenues.

During the pandemic, transport systems all over 
the world have suffered from a sharp fall in ridership, and in some cases have required emergency government 
support.

The UK can learn from other nations in developing models less dependent on passenger revenue: For example, in France, transport systems are part-funded by the Versement Transport, a type of employment tax levied on larger corporates in the area, and in North America we have seen projects supported by local property taxation, rather like the Crossrail Infrastructure Levy in London.

The Government’s fundamental review of business rates provides an opportunity to rethink how the retention of more rates revenue by local authorities could be used to underpin transport projects.

Likewise, the ongoing review of the planning system needs to ensure a strategic approach to future policy, with transport, housing and regeneration closely aligned.

In turn, civic leaders need to develop compelling visions for how their areas should develop, with homes, jobs and transformative developments all linked to new transport infrastructure.

Special planning zones around transport hubs, to encourage more dense, mixed-use development, would also help maximise local benefits.

Levelling up requires a 
change of mindset; it is not simply a Government objective, 
it is a UK objective with public and private sectors pulling together.

The property industry has a vital role to play in providing long-term investment in order to create vibrant communities and help drive prosperity. Fixing our failure to invest in transport will help put the country back on track.

Martin McKervey is Chair of Sheffield Property Association and the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire.

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