Jon Aydon is co-founder of the think-tank Policy North.
For business in the north, better transport infrastructure is absolutely key to us delivering a growing economy.
Almost £13 billion will be invested into northern transport infrastructure by the Government over this parliament. Importantly, along with that investment, power has been devolved too, with elected mayors in some areas and Transport for the North now in place to decide and deliver on our strategic transport priorities.
However, it was surprising for many to see Labour MPs representing Yorkshire and the Humber calling to “receive greater control over transport” last month – and just weeks later, Labour Council leaders in Barnsley and Doncaster pulling the plug on a devolution deal which could have delivered just that as part of a wider £900 million deal.
It is true the north has historically suffered from poor rail and road infrastructure. That historic imbalance has not just happened recently, but built up because of decades of under-investment.
When Chris Grayling headed north recently to address regional and business leaders, he made it clear poor transport is still holding the north back:
“Congested roads and overcrowded trains are a daily reality for thousands of commuters. Without modern, efficient and reliable transport links, the vast economic potential of the north cannot be realised.”
Campaign groups and Labour politicians continue to talk money, calling for “£59 billion” of “catch up cash”. To give that some context, that is about £15 billion more than the UK’s entire annual defence budget.
However, out of the bubble and on the ground we are now starting to see real improvements. For example, the £770 million being invested in the A6 Manchester Airport relief road will increase access to the country’s third-biggest airport, providing an economic boost to Greater Manchester and beyond. More than 22 million people live within a two-hour drive of the airport. That investment is one of the reasons is why the new Enterprise Zone is proving such a positive opportunity for major companies like Amazon, which is creating 1,500 jobs by opening its new facility at Airport City.
Post-Brexit, the north can lead the way with a global, outward-facing vision. That means investing in the maritime sector. The northern ports are vital gateways for both exports and imports, providing access to markets and supporting vital industries such as car manufacturing and energy production. The north is home to around a quarter of the UK’s population, yet northern ports accommodate 35 per cent of maritime throughput, 56 per cent of UK rail freight tonnage and 35 per cent of the road freight tonnage. These ports punch above their weight, and will do so even more through Policy North’s Great North Free Port concept – a Brexit opportunity that we must not miss.
Already, we have seen the construction of the new £400 million investment in the Liverpool2 container terminal, into which Liverpool can once again welcome the world’s biggest ships. This huge growth of the Port of Liverpool means the roads need upgrading. The A5036 provides the principal link between the Port of Liverpool and the national motorway network. This Government has committed to build a new dual carriageway bypass through the Rimrose Valley. Highways England is working with the local community to design the scheme, and spades could be in the ground in March 2020 at the latest.
It is pointless and counter-productive to simply compare the north to London. Local leaders in London were planning for today’s £15 billion Crossrail project as early as the 1970s. Crossrail 2 has been almost a decade in preparation. The north needs transport investment, but it needs vision, too. We need our local leaders here in the north to develop their own vision, to think differently and be ambitious – both about new and existing transport infrastructure.
Local leaders across the north must now step up, listen to business and the public, and work with government to make sure transport in the north is fit for decades to come.