North to get new transport powers – but questions remain

The north has been promised a far greater say on how money is spent on transport in the future but fresh doubt has been cast on whether the government will act upon any advice it receives.

Transport minister Jesse Norman announced today that Transport for the North (TfN) will transform into the first ever statutory sub-national transport body in England. From next April the body will have new powers and produce a statutory transport strategy for the north which the government must formally consider when taking funding decisions.

TfN has previously published a Northern Transport Strategy Report, which set out plans for a range of transformative projects across the regions such as east-west rail links and Smart North, a smart ticketing system to help passengers switch easily between buses, trains and trams across the region while ensuring value for money.

Commenting on the legislation, Norman said: “We are committed to the Northern Powerhouse, and to giving the great towns and cities of the north more say over transport investment through their umbrella body TfN. This government is investing the most cash for a generation in transport projects for the north. These new powers will give TfN far greater influence over national infrastructure decisions, as well the certainty they need to plan and drive forward projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail and smart ticketing. 

TfN applied to the Department for Transport to become a statutory sub-national transport body just over a year ago and targeted statutory status by 2017. The organisation was created in 2014 to allow the region to identify how best to drive economic growth through strategic investment in transport.

However, questions remain over the powers of the body, with the government only having to consider TfN’s views and not act on them. A former commercial secretary to the Treasury who worked on the Northern Powerhouse project has cast doubt on whether TfN will get the same powers as Transport for London. Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Lord Jim O’Neill said: “That answer is crucial. I’d like to see a joint statement from transport secretary, chancellor and prime minister saying this is an important step on a journey to allow TfN the same powers, recognising its crucial role in helping to deliver long term goals for the Northern Powerhouse.”

Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry said: “We are investing a record £13bn in transport in the north of England, more than any government in history. As part of this, TfN will be a game-changer, with powers to speak with one voice on northern transport projects and drive forward ambitious plans to improve transport connections and unlock economic growth across the Northern Powerhouse.”

The Department for Transport has also announced it was awarding £18.5m from a £150m fund for its smart-ticketing programme, meaning paperless, smart card season tickets will be available for Northern and TransPennine Express and Merseyrail passengers by the end of 2018.

Chair of TfN, John Cridland, said: “TfN gaining statutory status is an important step towards transforming the north of England and giving it the voice and powers it needs to move forward. To have the statutory instrument laid before parliament is a tremendous achievement, having secured the support of 56 local authorities including all 19 of our constituent authorities. We look forward to continuing to work closely with our partners to transform the region’s infrastructure and grow the UK economy.