Q and A: Transport for the North - strategy, finance and vision


Following the publication of Transport for the North's (TfN) £70bn 30-year strategy, we caught up with its strategy director Jonathan Spruce (pictured), to discuss where the sub-national transport body could go next and how its vision could become a reality.

You have called for more control over a budgets through a 'combined regulatory settlement'. Could you explain how you see this developing, and what talks are underway with government?

There are no talks underway. This is ongoing. Sub-national programmes are at the mercy of national programmes. They can get reprofiled and rescoped. So it doesn’t mean they necessarily get delivered in the right time and the right place.


So if government accepts the North’s advice, how can we have some sort of client role maybe on par with the Department for Transport (DfT) to make sure those schemes happen at the right time? At the moment we bid for road and rail separately, which doesn’t feel very joined up, so if the North wanted to put more money into rail than road there is no way it can do that. If it is a combined settlement over time the North can make those policy decisions.

If the department agrees to that and the North delivers schemes more efficiently then it should be able to recycle that money back into a scheme in the North. Alternatively if something gets held up, the North makes a decision on what to hold back in the programme. 

Would you eventually like to have borrowing powers or perhaps recieve levy payments from your member authorities?

At this moment we are not absolutely certain about what powers we want to have. We want a genuine grown up discussion about how the North can have more freedom. 

At the moment TfN can’t raise revenue, but our membership can. How does that work when you have a scheme in Greater Manchester; would a member in Cumbria want to be allocating revenue to that? There is no way to do that at this moment in time. 

Our feeling is that devolution is part of a two-way street. It’s a give and take and you move in tandem. What government said four years ago when TfN was set up, was "let us know your plan and what you need".

We think the plan is within the funding envelope the National Infrastructure Commission has set out. We think it is an affordable plan. It’s planned by the North for the North, and the North could probably be active in delivering that in an effective and efficient way.

What about governance under this potential future settlement - how would you work with partners like HS2?

Northern Powerhouse Rail a better example. That is a mix of new and existing upgrades. If you take something like the upgrade between Leeds and Hull for example - an early part to the Northern Powerhouse Rail - it's upgrading an existing line, signaling and track improvements and some rolling stock improvements, including line speed and improvements at Hull Paragon Station.

There is an element that says that is bread and butter infrastructure delivery. TfN could be a client to the department on that element, but Network Rail could deliver that as they would ordinarily.

With the new lines between Manchester and Leeds or Manchester Airport and Liverpool, the delivery model for that could be very different. It could be an HS2 style arrangement; it could be a joint venture; [or] it could be private sector. The idea would be that whatever the most effective delivery model would be that is what we would pursue at any one time. The fact that the plan is over 30 years means we can have certainty and have those discussions.

We are saying let’s have a proper mature grown up discussion with government, with Network Rail and with our local partners as to what the most effective delivery route would be.

The Pennines - a barrier to growth?

You have set up an analytical framework to help with your decisions on schemes. How is this different to other models, such as the DfT's WebTag appraisal model?

We have tried to take account a little bit more of the wider economic benefits that WebTag has recently tried to capture. These are projects whereby there may not be demand at this point in time or the need may not be there, but if you were to put the infrastructure in you would accelerate growth. For instance a rail link to Doncaster Airport from the East Coast Mainline.

If you look at the airport's growth predictions and development predictions over the next seven years, there is no overwhelming need to put a railway link in there. However if you were to put a link in, the growth rate, the housing growth, the growth of the logistics hub around that airport and the ability of that airport to compete to bring investment into the north of england could be changed.

What our appraisal framework tries to do is capture that value of unlocking infrastructure. That is best understood by the North rather than going in a national competition using traditional WebTag rules, which have seen some schemes in the North lose out.

Our modeling is actually quite similar to WebTag’s modelling. It essentially looks at taking away the constraints of the demand modelling, and considers opportunity unlocked. We are using a land use planning model, which then talks to a traditional transport model.

We have been working on this with the department. This is essentially pushing the boundaries of WebTag. Some of the work we are doing around Northern Powerhouse Rail and the TransPennine tunnel is looking at how you capture this wider acceleration of growth. 

If you had more control, how would you deal with the internal politics of such a vast area as the North?

We are political because our membership is the 20 leaders of the north of england. They come from all political shades and have signed off this document before its final approval.

We have set out very clearly in the infrastructure plan what our priorities are before 2027. Every single leader in the North has signed up that. They don't have everything they wanted in that plan.

We have taken a very clear evidence led view on where we need to unlock growth where are the constraints are. It has not been easy to go through that process.

I have seen in the 24 months that I have been working on the plan, a real change towards everyone buying into this for the north of england.

We have had Conservative and Labour mayors saying the same things. So I think the process has made the politicians realise that there is an angle here for the north working together.

If money flows from it and powers flow from it, that might be a very different thing but at the moment we have the politicians behind it and we have a very clear evidence-led plan but it wasn’t easy. 

There is a line of argument that says investing in transport within cities would have a major impact on the UK productivity gap and would be more cost effective than the large scale projects connecting cities that you focus on. What is your take on that?

In the new plan there is a section called local and sustainable transport. TfN's remit is pan-northern connectivity but we recognise that you have to have connections into those main hubs.

Actually it’s that first part of the journey, which determines the mode. So if we are serious about carbon reduction and mode shift, if the first part of your journey is difficult, you get in a car, and then you have lost the whole thing.

In the draft plan we didn’t mention it. We included a section on local and sustainable transport in the new plan because we think that is essential to the overall journey. 

We argue you need about £40bn to £50bn over the same time period as our plan for urban transport. That is as crucial as pan-northern connectivity.

Two year ago, the politicians would have said hands off urban transport, now politicians see this is about the whole journey and to tackle mode shift and emissions you need to think about it as a whole. All this cash comes in separate pots, we are trying to think about it in one coherent plan.


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