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Powerhouse for the North: Can it get traction?

Does anyone else remember localism? 

This was due to be a hallmark of the government, with its very own legislation back in 2011 aiming to devolve power to local councils and communities. 

Along the way it appears to have got a bit lost (maybe the noise of Scottish independence drowned it out).

But suddenly, in the dying days of the coalition, it’s back, with the Treasury’s pronouncements on the “Powerhouse for the North” and the Department for Transport’s promotion of the strategy for a new(ish) entity, Transport for the North

Is this an indication of future federalism for the UK, or just pre-election froth?

History repeating?

Certainly there have been criticisms. 

In an era where policy announcements are repeated over and over again, last week’s announcements added to the charge sheet. 

“A lot of the new strategy features… could be viewed as being somewhere over the rainbow rather than the Pennines”

A lot of the new strategy features (particularly on roads) have been knocking around for a while now, while others (particularly rail) could be viewed as being somewhere over the rainbow rather than the Pennines. 

From that angle, the ‘too little, too late’ and ‘shameless vote hunting’ complaints can be seen as both reasonable and justified.

Part of the reason for this is the relatively inchoate nature of the chancellor’s new sponsor body, Transport for the North. 

If TfN’s name is intended to echo that of its southern cousin Transport for London, then that may prove to be a mistake: where is the mandate, the statutory grounding and – most importantly – the budget that TfL enjoys? 

Tight spot

At present, TfN seems to be in a difficult place, balancing the diverging interests of coalition leaders (some of whom, such as the deputy PM, have potentially marginal seats in the region) and locally elected council officials, who may be working to a different agenda. 

“Revitalising the idea of ‘HS3’ and new smart cards is all good stuff, but it is going to need a powerful body… if it is not to fall by the wayside” 

There’s also the patchwork of other powerful stakeholders: Northern Rail, whose franchise is up for renewal next February; Network Rail, which is coming under rather uncomfortable scrutiny; and Highways England, the successor to the Highways Agency after the Infrastructure Act 2015 became law and with new ringfenced budgets.  

Talk of road building, revitalising the idea of ‘HS3’ and new smart cards is all good stuff, but it is going to need a powerful (and empowered) body, as well as hours of parliamentary time on committees and hybrid bill sessions, if it is not to fall by the wayside. 

That would be a pity. 

Despite some of the cynical reaction, the idea of creating a co-ordinated regional response to integrating transport and providing a platform for economic growth beyond the privileged South-east is an extremely powerful one. 

Shame the government has left it so late.

Jon Hart is a partner at Pinsent Masons

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