Devolved powers will help the regions to compete

As we adjust to Britain's new status outside the European Union, we face challenges but also opportunities. But we do so from a position of strength, after six years in which the economy has been transformed, our deficit as a share of GDP has been cut by two-thirds, and employment has reached a record high.

One of the key manifesto commitments the Conservative Party made back in 2010 was to fund major improvements to the transport network. That is a commitment we are honouring today with the biggest rail modernisation programme since the Victorian era, and a £15bn Road Investment Strategy as part of a 50% increase in transport spending this parliament.

The referendum result has, if anything, re-emphasised the case for transport investment. Now more than ever, we need the better connections that Crossrail, HS2, the Northern Hub, smart motorways and similar schemes can provide to meet rapidly rising demand for transport.

But it's not just the amount we invest. It's also the way we invest. For decades, ministers and civil servants in Whitehall have taken decisions on transport investment across England. But we've seen how devolved areas have succeeded when granted greater powers and we want to extend that. We're therefore giving local people, who understand their own transport needs best, much more of a say in how money is spent.

Good transport is one of the most powerful economic assets a region can have. It's what attracts investors, and creates new jobs. So it is that transport is at the heart of our plans for the Northern Powerhouse. We have watched, over decades, how the prosperity divide between north and south has grown. Yet today we have it in our power to close that gap, with transport playing a pivotal role in the process.

That is why Transport for the North was created: an alliance of northern authorities, city regions and local enterprise partnerships. The great cities and towns of the north have over 15 million people, with an economic output of £300bn. We want to link them up so they can pool their strengths, and compete successfully for investment against any other region in Europe. No-one is better placed than TfN's members to understand the unique strengths of the region or to multiply the value and benefits of transport investment.

TfN is working with the Government, Network Rail, Highways England and HS2 Ltd to get the most out of schemes like HS2, the trans-Pennine route upgrade, and strategic road investment. But it is also looking beyond the current programme, to the transport that the North will need in the longer term, with schemes like Northern Powerhouse Rail, the fast and frequent east-west rail network, the proposed road tunnel underneath the Pennines and a Smart North ticketing system which will help passengers get around the region on all forms of transport more easily.

Transport for the North is making enormous progress and its recent Independent Economic Review concluded that with the right investment and focus 850,000 new jobs could be created, which would be a major boost for the North. Ex-CBI boss John Cridland has been appointed as TfN's independent
chair, and the Government has given it £50m for this parliament, so the region now has a single body to drive forward transport projects and speak to the Government with one voice. We expect that TfN will be established as a sub-national transport body on a statutory basis in 2017.

Each region of the country will find its own solutions. For example, in the Midlands the Midlands Connect Partnership is bringing together local authorities and local enterprise partnerships from the East and West Midlands. The Government is providing £5m to Midlands Connect to produce a long-term transport strategy for the whole Midlands that will help to support the Midlands Engine for Growth. Work is continuing apace and Midlands Connect is also working with the Government, Highways England, Network Rail and HS2 Ltd to develop a robust evidence-based strategy by March 2017. The strategy will consider measures to maximise economic growth from HS2, reduce journey times and improve reliability between key centres, and a solution to congestion within and through the region. Midlands Connect is also expected to be placed on a statutory footing as a sub-national transport body, in 2018.

Other areas are also beginning to work together to move towards statutory status including England's Economic Heartland, which covers the Oxford-Cambridge arc, a key transport corridor. Here local authorities and LEPs are coming together to speak with a single voice on transport and economic priorities.

Elsewhere, elected mayors are being offered a range of powers, including responsibility for transport budgets, and freedom to retain business rates to help them fund infrastructure and services. Major cities are taking on new powers to manage buses, and create multi-modal integrated transport ticketing, just like London's Oyster card.

STBs will give localities a formal role in strategic transport planning, shifting the balance of responsibility outwards to the regions because local people know their economies and their development needs best. This will allow growth to be maximised and ultimately help Britain succeed outside the European Union.

Reference: Transport Times, July 2016 Issue

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