North East transport: the plans and the dreams

The chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC), Councillor Martin Gannon, is nothing if not irrepressibly ambitious. He is also incorrigibly unrealistic and apparently unaware of the irony of his position.

He was grumbling this week, as he is wont to do, about the inadequacy of government funding for the region’s public transport. This time it was the £150m announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to support bus services across England until October from the loss of revenue due to Covid-19, of which the North East will receive an as yet unknown share.

Though providing welcome stability, complained Councillor Gannon, the money won’t be enough to stop cuts to bus services. He may well be right. But that did not stop him two days later tweeting an appeal to local people to get involved in public consultation on a new £676m North East Rail and Metro Strategy.

‘Over the coming years’, he said optimistically, ‘we have a clear opportunity to transform rail connectivity to, from and within our region. We want to use this strategy to secure investment for new routes, new stations and continued renewal and modernisation of our railways’.

The Rail and Metro Strategy comes less than six months after a Bus Service Improvement Plan for which the JTC wants £804m over three years, and just a year after an umbrella North East Transport Plan that would cost a whopping £6.8bn by 2035.

A total of 400 glossy pages of text, maps, charts and illustrations in three impressive documents. And where is the money coming from for all this? Why, from the government of course.

This was made clear in the North East Transport Plan, where the £6.8bn required was described as ‘an amount which will grow as further schemes are developed over the lifetime of the Plan’ (p. 67). ‘We believe this to be a fair share of national transport funding which should be allocated to our region from central government to 2021-2035’, it added.

Expectations of what the government will provide reached perhaps the height of optimism with the Bus Service Improvement Plan, which would require more than a quarter of what is available for the whole country.

‘The government has confirmed that it has set aside £3bn nationally to deliver its National Bus Strategy’ says the Plan. ‘The proposals set out in this document require a major share of this funding if they are to be delivered in full, estimated at £803.9 million over a three-year period starting in April 2022’ (p. 6).

And so it goes on, now with the Rail and Metro Strategy, which would require an estimated £426m capital investment plus £250m revenue to maintain and operate infrastructure and services, excluding £2.5bn for rail and Metro extensions (pp 139-151)

‘The viable source of funding for such projects’ says the Strategy, ‘is at a national level. Following publication of the government’s Integrated Rail Plan (IRP )in November 2021, we are now working with Network Rail to secure an affordable, deliverable, fully costed pipeline of core investments to improve rail in the North’.

The JTC might think it’s affordable, but should have absorbed a dose of realism from the IRP. That is the document, after all, which aroused fury in North East leaders when it scrapped plans to extend high speed rail from Birmingham to Leeds.

There is overlap across the North East Transport Plan, Bus Service Improvement Plan, and Rail and Metro Strategy. The latter two provide details supporting the umbrella Transport Plan. So their costings should not be added to give an even greater amount. But even if the Transport Plan’s £6.8bn by 2035 covers everything, it still looks hugely ambitious.

There is nothing wrong with ambition; indeed, it’s a laudable quality in a leader – provided it does not serve only to raise false hopes. Councillor Gannon’s Transport Committee needs to be especially careful about that, considering that its seven member councils have still not agreed a devolution deal that would optimise their chances of securing government funding.

It is six years this month since Councillor Gannon embarked on the policy route which would see Gateshead Council, of which he is now leader, spearhead the charge against the devolution deal on offer at that time. His battle was successful, but it split the then North East Combined Authority (NECA) and its economy down the line of the Tyne.

Since then the three North of Tyne councils have formed their own combined authority (NTCA), signed their own deal and elected their own metro mayor, Jamie Driscoll, and it now looks as though Durham will go its own way as well and sign a go-it-alone county devolution deal.

There are those in North East local government who believe that the three metropolitan councils south of the river – Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – will now relent, re-unite with their North of Tyne counterparts in a new NECA and finally sign a new six-council deal. This website hopes so, but it is far from certain.

Such a deal would at least make the grand plans of Councillor Gannon’s JTC somewhat more realistic, though still ambitious. It would make between £600m and £650m available from the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement and in addition could enable NECA to turn a £30m-a-year devolution grant for 30 years into a capital investment fund of up to £1.4bn over the first 15 years, if official estimates at the time of the 2015-16 offer (p. 7) are still valid. That totals £2bn that would go at least some way towards realising the JTC’s hopes; but t present it’s going begging instead.

Grand plans are a fine thing provided they include realistic delivery mechanisms, not least the necessary funding. Without that they are not plans at all but only dreams.