Do not call us a 'talking shop' without the powers to act, transport boss tells government

A body representing northern leaders tasked with making recommendations on transport in the North has hit back at suggestions it is simply a “talking shop” and called for Government to give it more powers to shape the future of the region’s railways.

A report in the Sunday Times outlined how Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will this week announce a £6bn pot for investment in northern railways, and the creation of a new Northern Transport Acceleration Council to speed up the delivery of major projects.

But in the report, the newspaper had been briefed that ministers considered Transport for the North (TfN), which was set up in 2018, a “talking shop”, and seemed to suggest it had done little to bring forward rail upgrades.

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However today TfN chief executive Barry White hit back, and said: “Let’s be clear, the Department for Transport already controls every aspect of rail upgrades in the North: funding decisions, business case processes and oversight of Network Rail. The Government has direct control of every element that sets the speed of delivery.”

Chief executive of Transport for the North, Barry White. Photo: JPI Media

Mr White said TfN had been calling for improvements since their first statutory advice in September 2018, where the body urged the Government to fast-track investment in the Transpennine route upgrade.

And in Spring 2019 he said TfN lobbied Government to strip Northern of its franchise.

He said many months passed before either recommendation was acted on.

He added: “This unified approach also saw leaders submit the first business case for Northern Powerhouse Rail last year.”

Mr White said he “of course” welcomed investment in the North, “and anything to speed it up”, but he said: ”Nevertheless, these proposals seem to be rather confused as to where the speeding up is needed.”

He said TfN was set up with “limited powers, mainly to provide advice to Government”.

“And so yes, we do talk,” Mr White said.

“We talk with the North’s 20 political figureheads and business groups on their priorities and clear recommendations on the investment the North has long been promised and is well overdue.

“But we do not have the powers or devolved budget to instruct work or take the decisive action that we all collectively need. A situation we hope will soon change.”

Marcus Johns, a researcher specialising in transport at the thinktank IPPR North, added: “The term ‘talking shop’ was presented as something negative but sometimes you need talking shops.”

He questioned whether the announcements expected this week would be truly new, and whether £6bn was enough investment.

He said: “We knew a delivery body was coming, so it’s unclear to what extent this new council is not just being re-announced with a new name.”

He added: “We will have to wait and see the details, what I would like it to be would be new projects that the North sorely needs.”

Mr Johns said he hoped the announcements would be more than an “exercise in branding” or an “endless cycle of announcing things” and added: “I just wish the Government could do it without bashing institutions it created.”

And he said the ideal route would be “new investments in the North, that are built up by northern partners, with northern interests at their heart.”

Mr White added: “The North’s leaders are clear - however the Department for Transport wants to organise itself - the progress they have made as ‘One Voice’ cannot be erased and the next clear step is more empowerment.

“They want the ability to make local decisions that put passengers first and run a railway that responds to local needs. Powers that also allow us to create an integrated and sustainable transport network for future generations.

“They’ll soon be setting out proposals of how that should work in practice, involving a devolved budget and decision-making to help level up and build back better.

“Let’s work together, to empower and properly fund the North to make its own decisions on its infrastructure future, through our leaders and Transport for the North.”

A DfT spokesperson said on Sunday: “We’ve been clear that, as we rebuild from Covid-19, we must invest in revitalising towns and cities across the North, to ensure we kickstart our economic recovery, deliver rapid improvements to journeys for passengers, and accelerate the delivery of key projects.

“We are working closely with Northern leaders to determine how to ensure that vital investment is delivered swiftly and effectively. We will announce further details in due course.”