A passion for using transport to transform lives in the north

As Transport for the North (TfN) prepares to become the UK’s first sub-national transport body, Andy Walker spoke to the organisation’s new chief executive Barry White about TfN’s future plans.   

Barry White has taken over at the helm of Transport for the North at an exciting time. On his first day in his new role in January, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of TfN becoming the UK’s first sub-national transport body. Just six days later, the organisation launched its new Strategic Transport Plan with a series of events across the north and a large-scale consultation process. White is clearly in for a busy time.

“Our strategy is as much an economic plan as it is a transport plan and we’re very interested to hear what people think of that linkage and what people think about having a long-term plan,” says White. Having a long-term strategy over 30 years is a different way of looking at things and we will distil it down into a series of five-year interventions working with Network Rail and Highways England,” he says.

The 30-year plan will cost £70bn and TfN says it will generate a £100bn boost to the economy and create around 850,000 jobs. The scale of the ambition is clear and will be crucial in winning public and political support. White says that infrastructure spend has been cyclical in the past and it is important to move beyond this.

“We wanted to take a longer view,” he says. “But there also short-term things happening now, such as over £1bn investment in the Transpennine and Northern rail franchises with more than 500 new carriages and new trains coming this year. Smart ticketing is also on the way too. “People need to see progress and quick wins,” says White.

The TfN strategy is based on solid independent economic research and White says that by having a long-term plan they can make a big difference to the economy and local people. “I’m a big believer that infrastructure and economic linkages are really important. It’s also about quality of life,” says White. 

White sees improving transport linkages across the north as crucial to opening up opportunities for local people. “If you change jobs in London there’s a very liquid employment market because, as a result of good transport links, you can stay living in the same place and change your job; you can move around.

“Currently 10,000 people can access four of the major cities in the north within an hour. When Northern Powerhouse Rail is up and running that figure will be 1.3 million. For individuals that is important because you can access a bigger jobs market and you can stay living where you live now and still change jobs. It makes changing jobs less risky and staying in your local community is good for quality of life,” White says.

White sees transport as an economic and social enabler and clearly has a vision of the role that infrastructure can play in making people’s lives better in the north. White has a wealth of experience in delivering major investment programmes. Previously chief executive at Scottish Futures Trust where he led the organisation in improving the planning and delivery of infrastructure investment and asset management in Scotland, he has also held high profile private sector roles including as managing director of BAM’s UK infrastructure investment company and also as a director of Skanska Infrastructure Development.

Given his experience in both public and private sectors, I asked White about his views on procurement, especially relevant in the wake of the Carillion crash. “Procurement is a subject that’s very close to my heart,” he says. “I would love to see more people from the private sector coming on secondment to the public sector and more people from the public sector working with the private sector so both sides could understand each other a bit better,” White says.

White thinks that there is still a big gap in the understanding of each sector’s position and he says that cross-fertilisation of ideas and experiences from different sectors and cultures is essential. “There definitely needs to be a better understanding of each other’s drivers and what different parties can bring to the table. The key question for TfN and for our delivery partners, Network Rail and Highways England, is how can we get private sector delivery partners who are going to build things for us to put really high-quality people on those jobs because those high-quality people leading the construction will add significant value,” says White.

Post-Carillion there are many lessons to be learned and White’s thoughts are worth listening to. “If the public sector just clamps down on margin then your ability to get the best people onto those jobs to add the value that can save you money overall is limited. So, the big question is what procurement approach do you use that says we will reward you for giving us a better product rather than a mechanism that says we will try and put you in a box to take lots of risk and that protects us but doesn’t necessarily help you,” says White.

“A lot of the work has been done already and there’s a lot of good practice out there but we need to think really carefully about getting all the incentives right. We should be very worried in the public sector whenever private sector contractors are losing money on our jobs because that isn’t success for us at all. We need a healthy contracting industry to deliver projects for us. It’s about how you engage with an industry where margins are tight in a way that is fair and incentivises rather than penalises,” White says.

TfN is increasingly been seen as an authoritative voice on transport and economic issues across the north and has excellent links with political and business stakeholders. “We have 19 constituent local authorities - the members of TfN -  and sitting alongside that will be a partnership board that has the business leadership plus our delivery partners, the Department for Transport, Network Rail, HS2, Highways England, so we have the business leadership, elected leadership and the delivery partners sitting on that partnership board and they will feed into the Strategic Transport Plan,” says White.

TfN is engaging with businesses and the public on the plan and White himself is speaking at ten consultation events across the region. “We’ve already had thousands of downloads of the Strategic Transport Plan from our website and the level of interest is fantastic. This is not just about transport this is about the north and our vision of a thriving north of England, where modern transport connections drive economic growth and support an excellent quality of life,” says White.

White says he is looking forward to getting the plan finalised and published and then identifying the clear interventions needed to make a difference. In five years’ time he wants to see Northern Powerhouse Rail funding secured, get the rail franchises deploying that strategic investment and delivering and also looking at the next franchises. “Success will also be getting the development funding in place for the next road investment strategy and a rolling programme of work and future planning underway,” says White.

That planning will also need to be flexible enough to take account of technological advances in the transport sector. “Transport planning is changing more now than it has ever done for 70 years. With the advent of autonomous vehicles and the pace of change, we will have to be quite nimble as we develop our strategies and plans.”

What struck me most from talking to White is his passion for seeing transport improvements as a key driver for improving the lives of local citizens in the north. “This is not just a transport strategy, it’s about transforming the economy and improving people’s lives,” says White.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.