'England's Economic Heartland' latest to push for transport powers

An alliance of eight English local authorities with a combined economy equal to Wales, is applying to government for statutory transport status in the latest twist in the devolution agenda. Following on from the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act reaching Royal Assent at the end of January this year, the England's Economic Heartland Alliance has announced it will seek to become a statutory transport body to give it legal powers for planning and influencing the way transport infrastructure is developed across the region. This, the Alliance says, will bring greater certainty of infrastructure investment to the region and help it work with industry to accelerate delivery of transport projects.

The Economic Heartland Alliance was set up in 2014 by the county councils of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire to work strategically on transport across the tri-county area. The Alliance has since grown to include Cambridgeshire, Milton Keynes, Luton, Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough Council, a total combined economic wealth of £94bn the Alliance says.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act formed the legislation necessary for devolution of powers to elected mayors of combined local authorities, while also allowing for creation of sub-national transport bodies. Transport for the North and Midlands Connect have already organised themselves and received government seed funding for development of their proposals for becoming sub-national bodies. The Economic Heartland Alliance is the latest to move to take advantage of what's on offer through the Devolution Act.

Gathering of authorities under regional banners for strategic transport planning has the hallmark of a re-emergence of the regional development agencies (RDA) which were abolished in 2010 and replaced with Local Enterprise Partnerships by the Coalition government. The Economic Heartland Alliance has formed a strategic transport forum that includes four LEPs within its boundaries.

The Alliance's programme director Martin Tugwell said: "While the RDAs were principally planning bodies, this new Alliance as a sub-national transport body, will have greater powers for influencing, attracting and delivering transport spending. It will focus on transport for economic development and fit with government's devolution agenda."

England's Economic Heartland has a lot of opportunity in its sights. The Alliance is supporting David Quarmby's study of England's 'major road network' for the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund. The study recognises that there are many roads vital for regional and national economics which are not included in Highways England's strategic road network. The Alliance is intending to use the results of Quarmby's study, his emerging Major Road Network map, for bidding for funding through government's £475m Local Majors Fund for large local authority schemes.

Other studies highlighted as significant for the Alliance to contribute towards include Sir John Armitt's evidence gathering exercise for the National Infrastructure Commission, Highways England's analysis for government's next roads investement strategy and planning for Network Rail's next financial control period.

"The Alliance partners will look to use an overarching transport strategy to develop a longer-term programme of investment priorities," Tugwell said.. "Involvement of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association in our transport forum is a reflection of the positive engagement we’ve had from the industry. Greater certainty of a longer-term investment programme will encourage both public and private sectors to commit time and money in the development of proposals to the point of readiness.

"We are looking to use the partnership to develop an even stronger collaborative working arrangement with contractors. Taken in the round, both sides believe there is scope to speed up the delivery of vital infrastructure projects and in doing so reduce the cost of their delivery."