While the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has become a soundbite familiar to us all, perhaps one of the biggest challenges in transforming it from a well-used phrase to a practical reality is the strength of its transport links. With such a vast area, taking in the whole of the North of England, the North East is admittedly not as well served in that respect as other regions.
David Brown, new chief executive of Transport for the North (TfN), is well aware of that, particularly having just travelled by train from Newcastle to Manchester.
“It does take a really long time,” he admits. “Going from Newcastle to York, then to Leeds, then over to Manchester, it feels like a long journey. And that is just one example demonstrating the improvements that are needed to infrastructure, as well as to journey times.
“Railways and roads are how the North East and other regions physically connect with elsewhere in the country, and into Scotland too. Transport is such a crucial and integral part of economic development, it’s vital we make progress.”
While only in post for a few weeks, David has joined TfN at a key time for the organisation. Established by the Government in 2014 to support the growth of the Northern transport network, it has been assigned £30 million of funding to take its work forward over the next three years. Its eagerly-awaited updated transport strategy for transforming the Northern economy is to be published in March and by next year, TfN hopes to become a statutory body.
Important, therefore, that TfN has made such a knowledgable appointment. Experienced in uniting a wide range of bodies across the North behind one single cause, David enabled the successful creation of Rail North – an organisation heralded for its work in producing a long-term strategy for the future development of rail travel in Northern England – and most recently was chief executive and director general of Merseytravel.
With such a strong background in transport, and experience of consulting a wide range of partners, David is well equipped and ready to tackle the challenge of creating the infrastructure behind the Northern Powerhouse.
“To achieve economic growth, we have got to get the infrastructure right with the rail and motorway network. Journey times need to improve dramatically, as do services too. It’s crucial that for the success of the Northern Powerhouse, cities like Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield all link up and work very closely. There are over 16 million people in the North of England and a huge number of businesses, all of whom need to be better served by their transport links,” he says.
“Within the North East specifically, road and rail links with Leeds are something we want to develop. Over into Cumbria, we need to look at the rail link and improving the A66. And then going into Scotland, we are very aware of the need to make the A1 a dual motorway and to strengthen connections with Glasgow and Edinburgh – we are going to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Scottish Government to help make this happen.”
Through a new determination to progress, TfN appears set to bring about positive change. David credits the organisation and its partners in the business world for helping to effect this.
“We work very closely with businesses; they are heavily involved in the work we do. They are telling us what is needed from their perspective and we are listening. We work in partnership with all of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and our new chairman of TfN, John Cridland, was previously the director general of the CBI, so a business focus is a priority for us. It is their perspective which is most valuable in telling us how to grow the economy of Northern England,” he says.
And while the immediate focus will be on the recommendations of the impending TfN report, and translating that into reality, longer term, what is the future for TfN?
“Following the publication of the report, the next thing will be to achieve statutory status, which we hope will be next year. There is also the Northern Smartcard system, which we will hope to unlock some Government funding for,” says David, although this is clearly a far-from-exhaustive list.
“The most immediate priority is that we are all clear about what we are doing and that we have a plan to work to,” he concludes. “It’s very important for us to have that plan for people and businesses to see and for us to collectively work on and develop. That is my aim in my role, and indeed the aim of TfN. We all know how crucial the infrastructure is to a successful Northern economy, and are committed to making that happen.”