Comment: Will the TfN strategy ‘crowd out’ priority transport investment within cities?

Anthony Rae 4th April 2018 writes:  The other articles about the TfN strategy on this site – and also the 10 Core Responses of environmental transport organisations document – have a common feature: they all support Northern transport investment being prioritised within cities and their regions.* We’ve pointed out that that’s the clear conclusion as well of TfN’s own Independent Economic Review, which shouldn’t be surprising since it’s a common understanding that that’s where GVA uplift and agglomeration benefits are to be found.

It’s also the way in which to maximise the environmental, carbon and social benefits of transport investment: there are more compact spatial forms, shorter distances to travel, easier access to a spectrum of employment, denser and more financially viable transport networks – all assisting the task of carbon reduction.

What types of investment are we talking about? Let’s just quote the IER itself “…city-region local public transport networks, which are joined-up with wider networks, involving frequent rail services, light rail and bus, all supported by smart, multi-modal ticketing” IER executive summary p.19pdf  A specific example? What about a light rail network for the combined Leeds-Bradford conurbation, energising the economic connections between the two cities, and equalling the Metrolink network that has brought so many benefits to Greater Manchester? How much longer can the Leeds City Region continue to function, let alone prosper, without it? (We already know it can’t be provided before HS2 arrives in 2032). Could its absence just possibly be one of the reasons why LCR – and Bradford in particular – fares so poorly in the Northern GVA uplift league table (see our Winners and Losers article)?

But how much would that cost? Do we know whether this very large sum would nonetheless produce greater GVA uplift than, say, even a shorter Trans-Pennine Tunnel on the road corridor between Manchester-Sheffield, still included in the STP programme with a £10bn price tag? And is there headroom in the UK’s (or the North’s) total transport capital allocations to pay for both LCR light rail and TPT … or is there a choice to be made?

These are important and relevant questions because TfN are in fact pursuing the opposite investment prioritisation – on the corridors between cities, because (they say) ‘what happens within cities is not our remit’. The consequence inevitably is that a huge tension is wedged into the heart of the STP and its major transport investment programme. Put just a little simplistically: since a long-term transport investment programme is going to cost a very large amount of money – and you can only spend it once – who’s going to get it: the Corridors or the Cities? And then: which schemes? In other words, we’re back to Winners and Losers again; and that’s inevitable because strategies are ultimately always about choosing priorities.

The STP p.77 divides up TfN’s costing of its potential massive investment expenditure into three parts:

£39-43bn: ‘Assuming the current levels of committed strategic transport funding is continued from 2020 through to 2050, this could equate to around £39-43 billion for the North.’

+£21-27bn: ‘TfN estimates an additional £21-27 billion is required for transformational strategic transport investment’

+Additional funding: ‘Once further work has been completed on the Strategic Development Corridors and other programmes of work, additional schemes may also be included, or replace schemes currently listed and accounted for.’

Now you might say that £39-43bn of existing committed funding isn’t very much over 30 years – around £1.4bn per annum; and even if you add another £27bn ‘transformational’ funding that’s still only £2.33bn year; whereas Transport for London’s capital programme in 2016-17 was £3.6bn for a population size half that of the North Mayor of London’s capital spending plan p.12

But instead let’s concentrate on the more immediately important question: if TfN want an additional >£27bn to spend on transport investment between Northern city regions, on the explicit understanding that this excludes transport investment expenditure within those cities, how much will there be left for the separate investment needs of those cities within the total national transport capital programme; and does the TfN strategy process adequately integrate the need for this separate amount of expenditure – for example by actually identifying an approximate cost for it – alongside its own bid for additional pan-Northern resources?

Because if it doesn’t do this – with a real degree of sophistication which openly acknowledges the problem created by its own deliberate exclusion of these intra-city investment programmes, by in consequence incorporating into the TfN strategy a key interaction between these two major programme expenditure areas (pan-Northern+city regions) – then it creates the perception that it’s just ignored the needs of the cities and has instead sought to pre-emptively ‘scoop the pool’.

So how does the TfN strategy deal with this potential competition for scarce public resources, between its own investment programme and those of the separate northern city regions? When we first asked this question (in January 2018) we were advised I think that the separate investment needs of cities were allowed for in that third expenditure category: ‘additional funding’. But in fact if you read the wording carefully it doesn’t support that interpretation but instead appears to suggest that such ‘additional funding’ might be needed for still more TfN schemes. The wording is slightly ambiguous but it absolutely does not explicitly support an interpretation that this third expenditure category will be exclusively for the city regions.

It’s true that the STP section ‘Relationship with local transport systems’ does identify the interface between the inter & the intra: ‘As TfN and Partners develop major, strategic interventions for improving the road and rail network, consideration of innovative and targeted local urban and rural transport priority measures is required. This is also a key component, as the increase in road-based travel of around 50% by 2050 included increased travel by buses and cycling. Additionally, in many cases other modes are key to allow people to access work, health, leisure and education opportunities.’ p.80

But, crucially, the issue of how improvements to these local transport systems are to secure the funding they need is then not brought within the STP framework. The responsibility for that task is allocated elsewhere: ‘TfN’s Partners [i.e the combined authorities] will also continue to make the case for local transport investment to support the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review vision, for example extensions to the Tyne and Wear Metro and other urban rail and rapid transit networks.” p.77

What the STP does instead is to prepare the ground for a systematic prioritisation of investment funding in support of the type of strategic transport interventions that it argues supports a dominant economic agenda: ‘As the Government has set out in the Industrial Strategy, it is important to consider future investments and decisions strategically, ensuring that infrastructure not only provides the basics for the economy, but also actively supports the long term national interests. The Strategic Transport Plan, Strategic Development Corridors, and the interventions in the long term Investment Programme will do just that, by ensuring that the North’s long term interests and growth opportunities are better connected.’ p.76

Conclusion: Astonishingly it appears that the STP hasn’t begun to think through how to deal with this issue of competition for scarce public investment resources, and the potential for the ‘crowding out’ of improved city networks. If it continues on its preferred path then the prospect of a squeeze on transport investment within city regions is looking ominous; and the economic damage will be huge. The fact that it hasn’t done so is yet another consequence of its failure – both structural and spatial – to adequately recognise the dominance of cities in both generating economic value and as the location for more sustainable transport*. Maybe we need to repeat again the conclusions of the Centre for Cities in their Building the Northern Powerhouse report (June 2016):

”The main lesson from these areas [Randstad and Rhine-Ruhr] is that strong regional economies require strongly performing cities at their heart. This suggests that to improve the performance of the North, policy makers should use limited resources to prioritise supporting the growth of cities in the North. This will mean making decisions and choices that focus public investment in specific places rather than spreading it equally across the North of England.”


* Postcript For the avoidance of doubt: this isn’t saying that there shouldn’t be transport investment between city regions, but rather that this is a matter of emphasis and modal choice. If a northern transport strategy was based on the core objective of strengthening cities – our position – then rail investment between these important urban nodes would act to reinforce their position as well. Again as the IER says: ‘Enhanced pan-Northern city-centre to city-centre rail links, east-west and north-south are needed to facilitate the bigger labour markets that support the success of knowledge-based firms’. The same point applies to transport provision for rural areas: there will of course need to be improvements there that better link them to their adjacent city regions.