Local authority alliances will be given powers to establish statutory regional transport bodies under forthcoming amendments to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.
Speaking at a second reading of the Bill in the Commons this week, communities secretary, Greg Clark, told MPs: 'We intend that the Bill will also allow for the creation of sub-national transport bodies, Transport for the North being one, so we will want to reflect the powers to enable such bodies to be established.'
Department for Transport (DfT) officials told Transport Network that the Government intends to table the detailed amendments shortly.
A DfT spokesperson said: ‘The Government committed in the 2015 Summer Budget to making Transport for the North a statutory body with legal powers and duties.
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‘By quickly legislating to provide for sub-national transport bodies, we are bringing momentum to this vital new organisation – and potentially others around the country. This is a major milestone towards transforming northern transport, creating a Northern Powerhouse, rebalancing the economy and delivering devolution.’
The move could re-establish a level of wider transport planning that was removed with the abolition of the previous Labour government’s nine English Regional Development Agencies.
Many in the sector have argued that the 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships never filled the gap left by the dissolution of those bodies.
Midlands Connect, the partnership of local authorities championing better road and rail links across the Midlands, has already welcomed the move and revealed it will consider being placed on a statutory footing.
Cllr Jon Collins, co-chair of the Midlands Connect Partnership and leader of Nottingham City Council, said: ‘We welcome this announcement and we will now sit down together and with Government to explore the options.
‘Our existing partnership arrangements have already proved successful in raising the profile of the Midlands with Government. Moving to a more formal arrangement may help us speak with one voice on transport and open up some good opportunities in terms of having far more control and influence over the development of our infrastructure.’
Speaking to Transport Network, Andrew Pritchard, director of policy and infrastructure at East Midlands Councils suggested interest in moving to a more regional basis was prompted in part by the need to compete for funding under the current government.
Conservative leaders have been keen to use competitive bidding, through the Local Growth Fund for instance, to help incentivise improvements in local strategies.
Lord Heseltine, Tory grandee and architect of the pooled Local Growth Fund, argued that such a system would focus the mind on producing better bids and help identify those areas that are struggling.
As well as the Local Growth Fund creating more regional competition between LEPs, money for highways is also subject to a bidding process for the Challenge Fund as well as a self assessment scheme that punishes underperforming councils.
Mr Pritchard said: ‘We are in a very competitive environment. We have London to the south and Transport for the North, which is having a lot of traction with government. We need to make sure we don’t miss out.
‘The [government] agenda is having an impact on the way we do things. If you are to effectively compete for resources you need to do things differently. We recognise if we are to compete for funding we have to take a more collaborative approach.’
The Bill passed its second reading without a division and will now be considered by a Committee of the whole House.