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We can't close North-South gap without more power

Luke Raikes

Without great fanfare, the North just took back some control. 

In Liverpool last week Transport for the North (TfN) was officially born, meeting for the first time as a statutory body.

TfN has been building up to this point for many years. It came into being in 2015, following in the footsteps of previous pan-northern transport initiatives including the Northern Way and Rail North. It has given real substance to the rhetoric of the Northern Powerhouse, and like many of our most sustainable institutions it is rooted in the North, governed by elected leaders from across its diverse geography.

Imbalance exposed

The need for TfN is clear. Analysis of transport figures conducted by IPPR North shows the yawning gap in spending between London and the rest of the country. For the past 10 years, London has received twice as much transport spending per person compared with the North, which would have received a staggering £59bn more over that period had investment per capita been the same.

IPPR North also analysed the planned projects and found that London is set to receive 2.6 times more transport infrastructure per capita than the North. 

A major reason for this gap is that Transport for London (TfL) is excellent at developing projects and putting them in front of ministers. TfL is also able to fund and finance its own spending, while value-for-money assessments and political lobbying play a big part too. TfN will help address some of these underlying causes, but not all of them.

“TfN must be able to build its own capital budget through a combination of borrowing, revenue streams and central government grants”

So when TfN brings forward its proposals, central government must follow through and actually fund them. Given that promises to electrify the TransPennine rail line have been repeatedly made and repeatedly broken, a bit of scepticism from stakeholders is understandable.

But TfN will not be able to address all of these challenges in its current state: it will need more power down the line.

In time, it must be able to build its own capital budget through a combination of borrowing, revenue streams and central government grants. This will help to counter the tendency of a London-based transport secretary to support projects, such as the £31bn Crossrail 2, that are right on his doorstep.

Beyond transport

Yet all the economic theory and evidence shows that transport improvements in isolation won’t be enough; transport must be integrated with the other areas of economic policy.

A Council of the North has already been proposed by mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, and a Convention of the North is planned.

While it is unwise to propose a new tier of governance without having a clear idea of what it would do, in this case there is a strong argument. It would focus on transport, Brexit, trade and investment, complementing local industrial strategies with its own overarching northern industrial strategy.

The future of the North is today much brighter thanks to the hard work of TfN. The progress made last week is hopefully the first of many steps toward a transformed and prosperous northern economy.

Luke Raikes is a senior research fellow at think tank IPPR North @lukeraikes

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