Grant Shapps' Northern Transport Acceleration Council meetings must be kept secret so Ministers can 'think the unthinkable', says Department for Transport

Revealing publicly what is discussed at meetings of the Government's new northern transport body could discourage Ministers from "thinking the unthinkable" for fear of their ideas being ridiculed, officials have claimed.

The Department for Transport has refused to disclose the minutes and agenda papers for its Northern Transport Acceleration Council (NTAC) despite conceding that doing so may "lead to increased trust between citizens and government".

The Yorkshire Post requested the documents from the council - which was set up by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last year to speed up the delivery of major schemes - using the Freedom of Information Act.

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Grant Shapps' Northern Transport Acceleration Council identifies 100 key project...
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps leaves number 10, Downng Street in central London on March 17, 2020. Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Explaining the decision, an official said making the information public would "impinge on the council as a space in which ministers and officials are able develop their thinking in a plain-speaking manner and explore options on contentious issues in discussion with other ministers and external stakeholders".

They also said it would "discourage ministers and officials from ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and using imagination in council meetings without the fear that policy proposals will be held up to ridicule".

It emerged earlier this year that NTAC had identified more than 100 schemes across the North that it hopes to progress. Minister Chris Heaton-Harris said Department for Transport civil servants had been working with local leaders and metro mayors to identify the projects and were now "trying to get money out of the Treasury".

He cited the upgrade to the Hope Valley rail line between Sheffield and Manchester, which the Government announced recently would be getting £137m of investment, as an example of how the new body would work.

But he insisted that despite the creation of a new northern transport body there was still an important role for Transport for the North, which has had its budget cut amid fears it is being sidelined by the Government.

NTAC was announced last summer by Mr Shapps, who has previously described TfN as "by definition a talking shop". Mr Shapps, who is also the Northern Powerhouse Minister, chairs the council and says it gives northern leaders a "direct line" to Ministers to speed up the delivery of projects.

The DfT official said that releasing the council's minutes and agendas "would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views between ministers and northern leaders for the purposes of deliberation".

He added: "The council’s core purpose is to provide the north’s leaders with regular, direct access to ministers. Ministers and northern leaders must therefore be able discuss contentious issues in a plain-speaking manner without concern for how their views are recorded in public facing minutes."

Earlier this week, TfN set out what it described as "a bold plan to support the region’s renewal and recovery over the next 12 months through essential investment in transport infrastructure."

Members of its board agreed the 2021/22 Business Plan to advocate with one voice on the needs of the region, outlining how strategic investment in transport can aid Covid recovery and levelling up, and support sustainable and inclusive growth to help the UK build back better and greener.

It was also announced that John Cridland will retire from the role as chairman of TfN this summer, though it is unclear whether he will stay on as chairman of NTAC.

The former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry will remain in the independent post for the coming months until its annual meeting in July.