Prepare for progress on northern transport

By Spring 2016 Transport for the North will have a list of priority projects, highlighting new opportunities for the consultancy sector. Bernadette Ballantyne investigates.

Newcastle to Leeds could take 60 minutes instead of 87 according to the report. Image by Andrew Whitaker courtesy of Network Rail

The announcement of a northern transport strategy was made at a critically important time for the current government. The General Election is just weeks away and it is certainly a time when the public expect politicians to make promises. That it required three of the most senior members of the government to announce the northern transport strategy illustrates how important an issue regionalisation has become.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg jointly announced what they described as revolutionary and transformative plans that would support the creation of a northern powerhouse. “No government has given such attention to the infrastructure of our great northern cities and how to deliver a world-class, integrated transport network for the north. The proposals announced today will reduce journey times while increasing capacity and connectivity, enabling growth,” said McLoughlin.    

But politics aside, the proposals, if they secure funding, are certainly transformative. Led by the newly formed multi-regional Transport for the North Partnership, just the five new rail projects outlined have funding requirements of between £40.5bn and £65bn.

These include options for high speed rail between Manchester and Leeds, Leeds and Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester, Leeds and Hull and Sheffield to Manchester.

At the same time a less costly list of upgrade proposals is also outlined, some of which are alternatives to the new build proposals, requiring £12.5bn to £23bn.

Major road projects and a new northern freight and logistics strategy are also proposed but the strategy states that only projects deemed to deliver the best value for money will move ahead.

“The £65bn figure really is an upper limit, it could be more like £15bn to £20bn once they have selected options,” said Ed Cox, director at think-tank IPPR North which first proposed the creation of Transport for the North in November 2012. This was followed by a March 2015 report “Transport for the North: A blueprint for devolving and integrating transport powers in England” which outlines the institutional steps that should be taken in establishing the new body.

“They have broadly taken up our recommendations, but more quickly than we said. We are very pleased about that,” said Cox.

In the report IPPR North proposes that by 2025 the devolved body is funded via an allocation from government based on the Barnett formula used to calculate allocations for Scotland and Wales.

“Ultimately we think that there should be some kind of transparent formula where a chunk of infrastructure spending is apportioned to TfN and then they will decide how to spend that themselves and enter into negotiations with Network Rail and Highways England so that can all be properly devolved,” Cox said.

Certainty around this allocation from central government would then give TfN the power to leverage debt and private finance mechanisms in the future. As yet government has not revealed any details on funding but the report does state that “Government will look to make a multi-year commitment of funds to transport in the North through both the Spending Review and strategic planning processes for rail and road.”

So far just £12.5M has been allocated as a development budget for 2015/2016 but £6.1M of this is part of the Highways England allocation leaving £6.4M to the new Transport for the North. Over the next 12 months the organisation must establish a programme office to oversee development of the transport strategy and by Autumn 2015 it must have elected an independent chair.

For the consultancy sector then Marc Davies, chair ACE Northern Region and a Leeds based director at WYG, said that the opportunities are set to fall into two key areas; in project implementation and then within the transformed northern economies themselves.

“As a consultant based in the North I see it as an opportunity to grow and develop expertise and develop in scale to deliver,” he said but warns that the potential growth alongside schemes such as HS2 also presents a staffing challenge.

“There is a significant volume of work to be delivered over a significant volume of time and I think that the industry has certain areas of skills shortages. The industry cannot rely on the existing capacity that we have,” he said and urged firms to harness the talent in the northern region, “Link with universities, link with institutions to make sure that this is seen as a career of exciting opportunities and ensure that those with degrees in engineering follow through into the industry.”


If you would like to contact Bernadette Ballantyne about this, or any other story, please email