Go East, Young Man

Go East, Young Man


The one advantage of the long Easter weekend coming so early in 2016 is that it has given us all a chance to digest the wealth of new reports that came out in the preceding two weeks – Transport for the North’s update, the National Infrastructure Commission’s first three reports, HS2 Ltd’s report on links to Scotland and even the draft first National Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy on Easter Sunday itself. So, whilst gorging on Lindt chocolate bunnies (other cunicular confectionery is available), what have we learned?

Well, the common theme about all of them seems to be that they have been published to meet a deadline rather than the most appropriate time to prepare a coherent joined strategy. Clearly in politics this will always be the case, but sometimes it is better in the long run to get the strategy right if delivery is to be accelerated.

In reverse order, the draft Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy came in for some criticism over the weekend (from those who noticed its publication), primarily for the lack of sustained investment associated with it. So much has been done since 2010 with the Local Sustainable Transport Fund to boost small scale, local transport initiatives that it seems illogical not to continue with a similar level of funding and support, delivered locally. But logic often gets left behind when further local authority cuts become reality.

HS2 Ltd’s report seemed timed to appear just before the purdah period for the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May, and takes a high level view of how to connect Phase 2b of HS2 onwards to Scotland. The gist of the report seems to be that if you want speed, go west, but if you want passengers, go east, a conclusion which, in its purest sense, is hard to argue with and, concurs with the wide range evidence from studies we have undertaken on the case for HS2. The worry is how much the former, and especially the 3 hours Glasgow/Edinburgh target time is allowed to determine what, in any option, would be a costly addition to the high speed network.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s report has also attracted a lot of interest, not only through the return of the phrase “HS3” throughout the document, but more for the stronger promotion of Manchester and, less so, Leeds, as the key drivers of the northern economy that need to be prioritised when it comes to transport links. Whilst this may be an outcome of a narrower focus, it does sit somewhat at odds with the most important document published recently – Transport for the North’s Spring 2016 update.

The new TfN report is the first emerging strategy that truly encompasses the whole of the North in its scope and ambition and is an important beginning to set out what the North can contribute to the UK given the right level of investment. It headlines a number of key pieces of work, notably the Independent Economic Review, as well as detailed studies on Northern Powerhouse Rail (the official name for HS3) and trans-Pennine road connections, that will inform the Northern Transport Strategy that will follow in 2017.

More importantly than any of the other reports, it starts to focus on need – when are interventions needed, what economic drivers can they support, and what transformational changes could they deliver. Sure, there is plenty of mention of trans-Pennine issues from the Peak District to the Scottish border, but it also identifies the role of the east and west coast road and rail links to the northern economy as a whole, as well as national and international links.

There is a simple reason why the eastern leg of Phase 2b of HS2 (to Leeds) has a benefit: cost ratio of twice the western leg (to Manchester) – it connects more people and businesses. Now Network Rail becoming aware that north of Doncaster there will be significant capacity problems on the East Coast Main Line in the early part of the next decade the importance of HS2 eastern leg takes on much more importance. The TfN report picks this up in a way that neither the NIC nor HS2 Ltd’s reports do, being deep-rooted in evidence.

The lesson here is that David Brown and the team at TfN should be left to develop a strong Northern Transport Strategy that will last us a lifetime and beyond, and make the case for the investment programmes that really will make a difference. In forcing TfN to adhere to political requirements, there is a risk that the resulting strategy will focus on headline-making statements rather than transformational economic change. Contrary to the American dream, many of the riches lie in the east, as does the need.

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