Now Northern Powerhouse Rail faces downgrade

It will come as little surprise to readers of this website that the government is reported to be planning to scale down planned improvements to the trans-Pennine rail line linking Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds – the so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR).

It is just the latest blow to the hopes of northern politicians for a high-speed network across the region, following reported threats to the high-speed rail eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds (HS2b), from where trains were to have continued on conventional track to York, Darlington and Newcastle.

According to a report in The Independent, picked up by Northern Agenda, the government will only offer the north and Midlands a cut-price ‘bare minimum’ of upgrades when the Integrated Rail Plan is published.

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport told The Independent, repeated in the Liverpool Echo: ‘The Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 phase 2b and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the north and Midlands need and deserve.’

Although it is Liverpool, Manchester and Bradford that will be directly affected by downgrading the plans for NPR, travellers between the North East and North West will be affected by reduced capacity and lower speeds.

COMMENT

This website has been warning for months that HS2b was under threat, most recently on October 4. Now the speculation that NPR too may be downgraded has given northern politicians keen to level up their areas further reason to vent their anger on the government.

That is a natural first reaction, perhaps, but an easy option. It should be followed by serious  thought about exactly what the North East wants from the limited amount likely to be realistically available for transport.

Continuing to demand grand inter-city projects that will cost tens of billions may be unrealistic when a better option would be to press for less costly local improvements that help people get to and from work and college. A poll by FocalData for ITV and the Centre for Cities found that people’s priorities for levelling up included improvements to local transport (35%), alongside better job opportunities (48%) and regenerating town centres (38%), as reported here on October 8.

The priority for the North East should be to gain access to the £600m transport funding that is already on the table waiting for the area’s politicians to pick up – if only the seven local authorities (the LA7) will agree to a devolution deal. Failure to do a deal means the North East is missing out not just on the £600m over five years, with the prospect of more pay-outs to come, but the chance to build a London-style transport system through bus franchising.

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has referred to the funding available to the LA7 at least twice in recent months, as reported on this website.

On July 9 we reported on his appearance before the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee when he said that £500m was ‘sitting on the table’ if the North East would change its governance [i.e. agree an LA7 devolution deal]. On September 27 we reported that in a video tweet the mayor had said that £600m was on the table ‘but only if we come together with a single combined authority’.

The £600m is the North East’s share of a £4.2bn fund available to eight city-regions through a new Intra-City Transport Fund, previously called the City Regional Sustainable Transport Fund, forming part of a City Regional Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS), which the Department for Transport ( DfT) describes as ‘an unprecedented investment in local transport networks [and] a major driver for significant change’.

Guidance on the Fund published by the DfT on August 12 names the North East as one of eight city-regions for which it is intended, but makes clear why only mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) are eligible:

‘As well as devolving more power and funding, we want to devolve more responsibility. While mayors will design their plans and have the long-term funding certainty to deliver them, they will also be held to account’, says the guidance.  

‘The CRSTS aims to work and deliver in the same way as the settlement established over the last two decades in London, creating a more consolidated and devolved model of transport funding and delivering significant improvements for users’.

It added: ‘Just as London’s capacity and funding was built up over several successive multi-year financial settlements, we intend, subject to future spending reviews and the success of this programme, that this could be the first of a series of five-year transport settlements for the city regions.

‘A London model will not be achieved overnight, but the journey has started and the direction is clear’.

It also says: ‘These settlements could be used to develop mass transit networks and sustainable transport options, open up new areas of the region for employment, leisure and housing, and create real innovation in transport to solve problems’.

Explaining how local accountability will work, the DfT says: ‘The funding settlements for each area, and the outcomes it has agreed, will be published on a single, easily accessible website. Delivery against those outcomes will be monitored and that data will also be regularly published in the same place, giving government and local electorates the opportunity to judge each mayor’s performance.

‘Delivery performance will be monitored through a series of metrics designed to allow local electorates to compare performance between different city regions. Mayors will bear responsibility for cost and schedule over-runs’.

When Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham appeared on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC I on Sunday, October 3, the one demand he made in an admittedly short section of his interview devoted to levelling up was a London-style public transport system for Manchester.

But the North East’s access to the Fund that would make such a system possible here is currently blocked because unlike the other seven eligible city regions it does not have an MCA. Instead, it has the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) representing both the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), which has a devolution deal and a mayor, and the North East Combined Authority (NECA) , covering the four councils south of the Tyne, which has no deal and no mayor.

The chair of the JTC is Councillor Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council, part of the undevolved NECA, not Mayor Driscoll, and therefore not regarded by the government as sufficiently directly accountable.

The south of Tyne councils, which prevaricated and stalled for almost a year before turning down a previous devolution offer in 2016, appear to be doing to the same again. On June 9 this website reported that the NECA chair, Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, had told NECA’s annual meeting that it was watching the devolution debate and awaiting the White Paper on Devolution with interest.

More than three months later the councillors appear to be no further forward. A progress report on the North East Transport Plan, presented by officials to the JTC on September 21, referring to the CRSTS, noted: ’Work is being carried out to identify the opportunities which a long-term, devolved settlement for transport would present for our region’.

‘Discussions with government on this are awaited’, it added. ‘Development of a high-level prospectus demonstrating how we could invest devolved funding, and the benefits it would bring to our region’ is ‘the next milestone’. Progress, however, is risk-rated as red because funding conditions are not yet confirmed – which presumably means that councillors have still not agreed to an LA7 devolution deal – and the scale of funding is unknown

If councillors south of the Tyne are looking for reasons to avoid making up their minds to do a devolution deal, get their hands on that £600m – and subject themselves to all that online accountability –  there are likely to be plenty more opportunities. For the moment the White Paper on Levelling Up, due this autumn, is filling that role. Then there is County Durham’s decision to talk to the government about a separate go-it-alone devolution deal, which could muddy the water for months. After that there will doubtless be more excuses available for not deciding, if they are needed.

But councillors are not elected to avoid making decisions. They are elected to take responsibility and be held accountable.