North 'will not just roll over' if transport plans are downgraded, leaders say

Northern leaders have said they feel their voice has been “marginalised” at a time when decisions are being made which will “define the North of England for the rest of this century”, and into the next.

Politicians from across the region convened for the Transport for the North (TfN) board meeting today, following the news that the body had been told by the Government not to submit its the business plan for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) ahead of a Whitehall report setting out how the scheme will link up with HS2 and other major infrastructure projects.

Board members agreed that in the absence of being able to submit their strategic outline case (SOC) before the Integrated Rail Plan (IPR) is released, TfN would instead use statutory advice to convey its “non-negotiable” calls, including that Northern Powerhouse Rail must include a stop in Bradford city centre as part of a new Leeds-Manchester line.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Our SOC should be informing the IRP and not the other way around,” said Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram.

Commuters at Leeds railway station. Photo: PA

While Greater Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham said the situation was linked to the shutting down of plans to create London-style 'pay-as-you-go' contactless transport around the North after the Department for Transport (DfT) announced it was slashing its budget.

And it comes as mayors and a union leader wrote to Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, urging him to reconsider cuts to TfN.

The letter said: “We note that recently the Government announced a package of nearly £800m of transport infrastructure investment, but there was almost nothing for the North in this. People in the North will see this as the same old story.

“If the Government persists it will expose its claims of "levelling up" as empty rhetoric.”

And TUC Yorkshire and Humber Secretary Bill Adams said: “While the Prime Minister talks about ‘building back’, his Transport Secretary is cutting back, and he’s targeting those cuts on the North.

“The years ahead are a national success story waiting to happen, with the North playing a big part. We don’t lack ideas. We don’t lack talent. We just need the investment to unleash our potential.”

The DfT previously said it was “committed to levelling up every part of this country, investing in schemes improving journeys and boosting economic growth”.

And said it had only asked TfN to delay submitting its proposals “to ensure the rapid alignment of plans and swifter progress”.

But at today’s TfN meeting, Mr Burnham said: “We're hitting a point now where big decisions are in front of us that will define the North of England for the rest of this century, and indeed the one after it, it's that serious.

“But when we look at what's happening to TfN it feels as though our voice is being sort of marginalised, just at the critical moment, and our ambitions are being downgraded at the same time.

“So I think it's worrying to say that we go quiet at this point, and we wait for the IRP.”

He said previous advice from the National Infrastructure Commission was that the IRP would be “predicated on fully funding high speed rail in the South, and the way that the budget reductions would be made would be by cutting back in the North”.

He said: “So that's the age old story, isn't it? That's what TfN was set up to challenge, the idea that we always get a cut price railway in the North and a fully funded railway elsewhere in the country.”

He added: “I think we're in danger of being sidelined at the worst possible moment [...] it feels as though the department is slowly turning down the volume on the TfN voice and almost possibly getting ready to pull the plug.

“Well I just don’t think we can accept that.”

The board heard how the organisation had little option but to delay the submission of their plans to the DfT, because the setup of the co-sponsor relationship between the two meant that without DfT’s agreement, the document could not be sent.

Liverpool City Region metro mayor Steve Rotheram said: “I do think this is part of a recent and ongoing neutering of many of the things that we would like to do and believe that it is our responsibility on behalf of the voice of the North to do.”

And he said it was imperative that through the statutory advice given that TfN made it clear that a “cheap and nasty option” would not be accepted and that “we're not just going to roll over and have our bellies tickled”.

A DfT spokesman said: “Northern Powerhouse Rail is a key part of the Government’s agenda to level-up the North and our Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) will soon outline how the programme will boost connectivity across the region and provide faster more frequent services for passengers.

“We want to get this vital project underway as soon as possible and we have therefore asked TfN to submit their business case after the IRP to ensure the rapid alignment of plans and swifter progress.”

Meanwhile in West Yorkshire, leaders said the region faced an overall cut to transport maintenance funding from £46.7m in 2020/21 to £36.5m in 2021/22.

Councillor Kim Groves, Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, said: “Here in West Yorkshire, our combined allocation will fall 22 per cent compared to last year, in a year which has seen unprecedented demand on local council budgets due to the pandemic, this will place further pressure on councils and their ability to maintain roads, ultimately affecting all road users.

“We have real concerns what this cut could mean for our communities. Local authorities rely on this funding to carry out vitally important road repairs and maintain the condition of their road networks, which affect all users, including pedestrians. Our councils are under a lot of pressure to tackle a backlog of road repairs, made worse by recent bad weather. The reductions will also impact on the maintenance of pavements, street lighting, bridges and drainage – these are all things that affect people’s day to day lives.”