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Speaking up for transport in the north

The role of transport projects in unlocking housing and regional economic growth was high on the agenda at the Transport-led Development in the North of England conference which took place in Manchester today, reports Andy Walker.

Construction and infrastructure professionals and local authority representatives were in attendance at the event which looked at how transport-orientated events in the region had the potential to transform local economies and communities across the whole of the north.

Speakers outlined the benefits of current initiatives like the Transport for the North (TfN) northern strategic plan which had ben produced after a large-scale public consultation process across the north. Jonathan Spruce, TfN’s interim director of strategy, said that the plan wasn’t just a transport project it was about transforming the regional economy to benefit all citizens in the north. 

Spruce spoke about the TfN’s ambition for the north to have the most ambitious smart ticketing system not just in the UK but in Europe. Aiming high and using tomorrow’s not yesterday’s technology would deliver a transport infrastructure the north could be proud of, he said, and one that would futureproof the region. 

There were challenges though and some of these were highlighted by Nicola Kane, head of strategic planning and research at Transport for Greater Manchester, who said that “funding is still a key challenge for Transport for Greater Manchester”. This was due to many factors, Kane said, including the way that national government funding is allocated.

Anna-Jane Hunter, north of England director for Network Rail, was well received by delegates for an honest an assessment of the challenges faced by the region in transforming its rail services. Hunter gave a spirited and passionate overview of the benefits of living and working in the north and the role of transport infrastructure in making the region even more attractive. She said it was crucial that the north as a region “worked out what growth it wanted to achieve and how”.

Phil Forster, corporate and external affairs manager at Leeds Bradford Airport, highlighted the challenges the airport faces, especially around direct transport access. Currently, the airport has no rail link from the main transport hub at Leeds and it takes passengers 45 minutes by bus to get there. “That’s unacceptable,” Forster said. “We need surface access from the region’s main rail hub in order to make Leeds-Bradford more accessible and to make the most of the airport’s expansion, due for completion in spring 2020,” he said.

Forster also highlighted the airport’s ambition to increase its hub connectivity to widen the number of destinations served. “A thriving region needs a thriving airport,” Forster said. Delegates at the event agreed that there was a real need to expand and upgrade Leeds-Bradford and crucial to that would be transport connectivity but also the political will – nationally and locally – to make that happen.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said that connectivity was holding the north back, with some companies not even looking at the north because of its poor transport links. Northern Powerhouse Rail was crucial in transforming the northern economy, said Murison, as part of a series of cross-regional transport interventions that will improve local connectivity.

Tuning to HS2, Murison was clear in his organisation’s support for the project. “The worst possible outcome is that you build Phase 1 of the project and stop at Birmingham,” he said. “The country needs a decent set of infrastructure to grow our economy and there isn’t a separate argument between HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. It’s important for these to be integrated projects because that’s what they are,” Murison said.