Transport for North stripped of powers

In a regressive devolutionary move, the government has stripped Transport for the North (TfN) of its responsibility and funding for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the planned route across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds.

The move came just a day after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps caused anger among political and business leaders across the north by downgrading plans for NPR and scrapping the eastern leg of High Speed Rail 2 (HS2b) between Birmingham and Leeds.

The downgraded NPR was described by Councillor Louise Gittins, a Cheshire councillor and interim chair of TfN, as ‘woefully adequate’.

Now the Manchester Evening News (MEN) has revealed that the government is taking all devolved funding and responsibility for NPR away from TfN, which will in future have an advisory role.

TfN became England’s first sub-national transport body in April 2018, with a remit to plan and prioritise long-term infrastructure investment in the north. It has a board of 20 northern mayors and councillors, including three from the North East.

According to the MEN, Labour described the DfT’s move as a Whitehall power grab while the government said it was designed to streamline accountability nationally.

COMMENT

TfN is based in Manchester and its main focus is on the Manchester-Bradford-Leeds corridor. There are probably many people in the North East who have never heard of it. The ignorance appears to be mutual. North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll, a TfN board member, revealed in The Journal today how it took some diplomacy to get TfN to back the Leamside Line between Tursdale in County Durham and Pelaw on the Tyne & Wear Metro.

Driscoll wrote that the government didn’t know its Ashington from its Easington. It is probably just as true to say that TfN doen’t know its Fellgate from its Ferryhill.

But for all that, stripping TfN of responsibility and funding for NPR, its main raison d’etre, is the wrong move from a government that is supposed to be committed to devolution, particularly coming just weeks ahead of the expected publication of the Levelling Up White Paper.

Of course the government cannot wash its hands of projects costing billions of taxpayer pounds and has the right to insist on a scaled-down NPR if it wishes. Ministers should take responsibility for the NPR downgrade – as they are doing – tell TfN to get on with delivering the scheme as approved and hold it to account for doing so on time and on budget.

The problem remains, however, that if TfN fails to do that it is still ministers who will carry the can in Parliament. That is probably what the government meant when it said stripping TfN of responsibility and funding for NPR was designed to streamline accountability nationally.

But it turns devolution into a sham if the government can take powers away at will, just because a devolved authority acts in a way it does not like. That is why directly elected and accountable mayors have been an essential feature of devolution since it was initiated by former Chancellor George Osborne in 2014.

They are the ones who have to carry the can, with voters and ministers, if their authorities perform badly.

TfN should have a directly elected chair too, a politician who can be kicked out if the organisation does a bad job, not an indirectly elected councillor who can go back to her or his council seat or an appointed business grandee who can return to his or her boardroom or to the comfort of retirement.