The drivers of transport policy differ region by region

While the rest of us are in various states of stasis with just 32 days to go to Brexit day, others are quietly planning for the longer term. Our emerging sub-national transport bodies are each looking at the mid-century, or even longer, to set their transport strategies and priorities.

When it comes to looking at 2050, of course it's wise to use scenarios rather than pretend a central forecast is going to be much use. With underlying demographic and economic growth assumptions up in the air (remember the happy presumption of +2.25% GDP growth per annum?), these scenarios can point to radically different outcomes. The case for specific investments becomes a matter of 'well it all depends....' Charlatans at this point give up on rational analysis, but professionals must show resolve. And that entails recognising that plans for transport need to be rooted in an understanding of wider social and economic realities.

We've done it before. I have a copy of M.P.Fogarty's Prospects of the Industrial Areas of Great Britain published in 1945. A war-time effort, the first of a series of reports based on the Social Reconstruction Survey instituted by Nuffield College for the wartime coalition Government, it provides a place-by-place assessment of how industries should be rebuilt for peace-time purposes.

Commendably, Transport for the North used its Independent Economic Review as a starting point for its planning, and – understandably in the current state of flux – is already updating it. But this is not enough. Nationally, there is a Social Mobility Commission (albeit under new management, since its chair Sir Alan Milburn and entire social mobility team quit citing 'lack of political leadership' at the end of 2017). Its remit is to 'monitor progress towards improving social mobility in the UK, and to promote social mobility in England'. With central Government distracted, its impact is diminished, even as its work is needed more than ever. So, is it time for sub-national transport bodies (SNBs) to commission their own social mobility assessments, before deciding transport priorities? I think so: transport is a key factor in social mobility.

And alongside the economic and social dimensions, we must surely too locate a clear trajectory for environment policy at a regional level. After all, the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2013 requires those who commission public services to think about how they can also secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits.

These essential background investigations must be quantified against a time-line. They can serve to help much more than transport decision-making: they can form the context for land use planning, place-making, for planning the restoration of town centres, for creating a sense of empowerment and regaining locally the sense of civic pride that community-based planning can bring.

This signals a need for the double-devolution that the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) called for to tackle the root causes of poverty and regional variations in the economy in 2015. Its still-relevant report recommended using procurement to help deliver social and economic change, as well as a new role for councils to help promote local economies.

SNBs could provide a haven for local councils to foster local well-being and prosperity. Over time, other regionally defined agencies of the state might do well to align themselves with the strengthened sub-national bodies.

Of course, to work, SNBs must have budgets, fairly allocated, and under their own control, as happens in virtually every other major economy. To Treasury centrists I say this: only this way will regional aspirations be tempered by financial realities. Strong regions, we know, lead to strong national economies.

Cross-region cooperation will ensure that (in this case) regional borders remain invisible. Transport for the North is already working jointly with Midlands Connect and with North Wales, for example. True, the national network providers – Network Rail and Highways England – have structures that don't fit the emerging regional structure, and there may be tensions between what may be wished for locally (new stations on busy main lines, major developments at Motorway junctions) that sit uneasily alongside the performance quality aims set for the national networks. But resolving any such differences can be left to the bodies concerned: for DfT it's simply a matter of setting the aims for the national network providers.

Regional bodies have the advantage of scale, and they make special sense in Britain where cities, each of distinct character and ambition, are so often close to one another. Decisions on transport in one affects the next in line. The strengthening through deepening being advocated here can help determine policies in related areas such as housing and health too.

Setting transport programmes and policies in the context of economic social and environmental policies specified regionally will ensure there are ready answers to the why? questions in transport investment business cases.