Is regional spending on transport fair and what needs to change?
Having just spent the best part of two hours schlepping in and out of York through race day traffic for a 2 minute radio interview on transport spending in the North I thought I’d share the thoughts I didn’t get time for.
First up, is the spend on transport in different parts of the UK fair? The chart below is taken from data summarised in the IPPR North’s assessment of the NIC and HM Treasury infrastructure pipeline for those projects that can be classified to a region.
Per Capita Spend on Transport Infrastructure from 2016/17
Arguments can be had about what is in and what is out. Revenue spend is not included, for example, which is also lower in the North. The picture is clear, however, and has been so over a long period. More money gets spent in London and on investments connected to London than for cities in the North.
Why does it happen and is it actually just the outcome of different needs in different places? Andy Burnham hits the nail on the head when he wrote in the Guardian about his time in the Treasury. The way transport projects are assessed are to look at the benefits of investment versus the costs. In general the benefits are greatest where congestion is highest, flows are highest and issues such as overcrowding and unreliability are worst. The reality is that these problems are, on average, worse in the more crowded South East than the North. On top of this, recent focus on identifying wider economic benefits such as agglomeration of knowledge industries are also likely to be stronger in and around London. So, whilst doing work in London and the South East can be much more costly due to the lack of space and need to work underground, the benefits are such that more investments come out on top from there than from the North.
There are other factors at play. Almost twenty years of Transport for London and the Mayor have led to a focused set of planning activities with a delivery body and financing regime to support that. Devolution in the North is still in its infancy. Whilst I am a big supporter of it there are major challenges to pan-regional action for an agency like Transport for the North. Investments in one part of the region relatively disadvantage another. It is a huge region and tensions exist. Whilst there is talk now of speaking with one voice, this will take time to be an effective voice.
However, my view is that we have a Henry Ford problem. He is attributed as saying “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”. It will matter much less what the leaders of the North ask for if the process for deciding what makes for good value for money remains as it is in Whitehall.
Does it matter? It matters for the quality of transport service people experience. The journey times between Leeds and Manchester by rail are about 50 minutes for a 40 mile journey. You can get from central London to Peterborough (80 miles) in 45 minutes and Winchester (70 miles) in just over an hour. Our major cities of the North do not have good connectivity and there is little redundancy when either the M62 or the transpennine rail line goes wrong.
What options exist for change? There are different options each with benefits and disbenefits. One argument would be to hand a bigger chunk of resources to Transport for the North and let them decide how to spend it. If a funding settlement could be agreed then that would certainly place a responsibility for achieving best value out of that firmly with the Northern leaders. However, Transport for the North is not an elected body and so there would need to be some pretty heavy checks and balances in place to ensure that the spend did not just end up as pork barrel politics or there would need to be a shift to far greater direct accountability.
The problem could also be solved out of Whitehall. One option would be to have a national transport strategy. Yes, that’s right, a national transport strategy. Don’t get me wrong, they have not always been particularly effective but we have not had one since the coalition of 2010 (see forthcoming article with Jon Shaw, Iain Docherty and Jillian Anable – come on reviewers!). However, it seems clear that to address the infrastructure shortfall of the North requires a very deliberate policy around what constitutes good connectivity and journey quality between our major cities. This does not mean that everything we have in place today gets revisited. Projects to support growth will continue to remain important but if we leave it to the current process and keep the commitments vague then we may end up continuing to get what we always got. As an aside, a national transport strategy might also do some really important joining up of other major agendas such as road safety, total electrification of the car fleet and how we take a longer term view on resilience which is also subject to regional disparities.