The north east needs greater autonomy to create better transport links if the Northern Powerhouse is to become a reality, argues Nick Forbes
The test of whether the Chancellor’s commitment to a “Northern Powerhouse” is more than just rhetoric will be set here, in the north east. We have laid out radical plans for the future, as a core partner in Transport for the North – an initiative that includes Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Hull and Humber – and as a new Combined Authority that serves two million people across seven local authorities. But we now need a devolution commitment from government to carry them through.
As an international centre for marine offshore engineering, automotive manufacturing and software development, the north east can play a vital role as a gateway to northern Europe and a link to a better connected Scotland.
Too often perceived as peripheral, we believe that a resurgent north east can be at the centre of a northern powerhouse which connects beyond its boundaries. Transport for the North recognises the importance of Newcastle as the north’s second major airport after Manchester, providing intercontinental travel and freight movement to a distinct market (this month sees the start of direct flights to New York). Our role as the only net exporting region of England is also reflected in the ambitions for our successful ports.
I’m backing HS2 on the basis that, with upgrades to the East Coast mainline, high speed trains can continue their journey beyond Leeds to Newcastle – linking with services to Scotland. An upgraded mainline will also connect to the planned HS3 cross Pennine route, cutting journey times between the port cities of Newcastle and Liverpool to just under two hours.
Major investment in the region’s roads will include an upgrade to the A1, to at last connect our region to the motorway network – the M1 stretching from London to Newcastle for the first time, then dualled to the Scottish border. Investment in critical east-west connections like the A66 and A69 will improve connectivity and ease pressure on the congested M62 cross Pennine route
Of course these major developments are pointless if local people don’t benefit. This is important in an area which encompasses major cities like Sunderland and Newcastle within the rural expanse of Northumberland and Durham. Connecting remote towns and villages to key transport hubs is essential. And a higher proportion of our urban populations depend on bus services.
The deregulated system which allows bus operators to cherry pick profitable routes and rely on public subsidy to connect remote areas just doesn’t work for us. That’s why we are pursuing a new approach to franchising bus services to meet the needs of local people. The process for achieving this is a legal minefield – a devolution deal would help us to deliver improvements more rapidly.
The north is connected by the Metro urban light rail network, which we plan to improve and extend. We also want to see improvements on the wider network with new trains replacing ageing “Pacers”, and to address the chronic under-investment in our critical commuter services.
Providing people with the information they need to access all modes of transport is essential so we are developing integrated passenger information systems, and we have advanced plans for a smart ticketing system across the bus and rail network.
There’s no doubt the aims of Transport for the North are bold and ambitious – and the north east will be part of them. But we should not lose sight of the fact that transport is all about connecting people to places. It is by connecting people to education, jobs, services, and ideas that the Northern Powerhouse will be built. Striking a balance between national infrastructure and local connectivity can unleash the energy, innovation and creativity of the north.
Nick Forbes is leader of Newcastle City Council and the North East Combined Authority’s lead member for transport. You can follow him on Twitter.
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