IF the north of England were a separate nation, it would be among the 10 biggest economies in Europe.
With a population of 15 million, over a million businesses, and exports upwards of £50bn, the North makes a massive contribution to the success and prosperity of the UK.
But poor transport is holding it back. Congested roads and overcrowded trains are a daily reality for thousands of commuters. Without modern, efficient and reliable transport links, the vast economic potential of the North cannot be realised. So I am pleased that leaders from across the North are gathering for a conference in Leeds this week to debate this very issue.
The message I want to send them is simply this: although one of my biggest priorities as Secretary of State is to build the transport links the North needs to thrive, they must be designed and managed by the North itself.
It is central government’s responsibility to provide funding and a delivery structure that ensures efficiency, value for money and accountability. But beyond this, I want the North to take control.
Unprecedented investment is already in place. We are spending £13bn on Northern transport in this Parliament – the largest in government history.
We are building HS2 – the first new North-South railway in this country for over a century. We’re providing better rail journeys through the new Northern and TransPennine franchises and Great North Rail Project. We’re spending almost £3bn on road improvements, and upgrading the M1 and M62 into smart motorways. And private funding is transforming major transport hubs like Leeds Bradford, Newcastle and Manchester Airports, and the port of Liverpool.
All this investment is crucial. But it’s only part of the solution. What’s just as important is the North stepping up to shape its own transport destiny.
By setting up Transport for the North (TfN) and backing the election of metro mayors, we have given the North greater autonomy and control, and a powerful voice to articulate the case for new transport projects. As soon as I became Transport Secretary, I began taking steps to put TfN on a statutory footing.
Instead of ministers and civil servants in Whitehall deciding what’s best for the North, I want TfN and other Northern leaders to come forward with fully costed proposals to improve journeys for transport users and provide value for taxpayers.
This is not about setting one region against another. We’ve seen enough of that recently in a series of articles quoting Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and another in The Yorkshire Post last week written by Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald, which mistakenly claimed that the Government is rowing back on our commitment to the North because we favoured Crossrail 2 in the South. In particular, they cast doubts on our plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail – the proposed East-West railway linking Liverpool and Hull.
They were wrong.
We are fully committed to our Northern transport programme, including Northern Powerhouse Rail. In fact we have given TfN £60m to develop proposals for the scheme, and are working with them to strengthen the business case for the line.
It’s exactly the same as the way we’re working with Transport for London on Crossrail 2. The only difference between the two schemes is that Crossrail 2 has been nine years in the making, while we started planning Northern Powerhouse Rail in 2013.
I have been absolutely clear that sometimes we may have to adapt plans when evolving technology provides us with new options. As The Yorkshire Post has reported, new bi-mode trains, which seamlessly transfer between diesel and electric power, mean we don’t have to electrify entire rail lines to achieve the same benefits for passengers.
In some cases, we can deliver journey improvements faster, without the need for disruptive and expensive electrification works. This is what we are doing to improve journeys between Sheffield and London. There will also be bi-mode trains crossing the Pennines by 2020.
I’m hugely excited about the prospects for transport in the north of England. Tremendous opportunities are opening up to connect the major Northern cities with modern new links, and deliver the extra capacity to tackle congestion and overcrowding.
But ultimately, it is not up to central government to grasp these opportunities.
The success of Northern transport depends on the North itself – on TfN, businesses, mayors and devolved authorities, and on local communities. They understand the North’s transport problems better than anyone, and with their knowledge, we can fix them.
Chris Grayling is the Transport Secretary.