In conversation with Barry White: Driving Northern Powerhouse Rail

Now several months into your role, what challenges (if any) have you faced leading England’s first sub-national transport body?

I think there are always going to be challenges when you’re the first of something, but that’s what is exciting. Becoming a statutory body is a huge achievement in its own right – it’s a clear sign that the North is coming together to speak with one voice. A total of 56 consents were received from authorities across the whole of the North, a monumental endorsement for what we are doing. I think five years ago, many people would have said that would be the biggest challenge facing us, and we have managed to do that. The legislation passed through Parliament near enough the day I started, so it was a very good time for me to start!

Since I began my journey here, however, one of the biggest challenges has been getting Northern Powerhouse Rail to the point where we are submitting the initial, high-level Strategic Outline Business Case by the end of the year. The Northern Powerhouse Rail team have been working incredibly hard to make sure this is delivered.  Me being able to sit here now and tell you that we’re delivering that case on time is a testament to the effort they have put in – pulling together the plans to better connect the six major city regions in the North, to create improved opportunities for people and business.

Currently, fewer than 10,000 people in the North can access four or more of the North’s largest economic centres within an hour. This would rise to 1.3 million once Northern Powerhouse Rail is delivered. Furthermore, more than 40% of businesses identified as having the North’s prime capabilities, including Energy, Advanced Manufacturing, Health Innovation, and Digital, would be within 90 minutes rail travel of four or more of the North’s largest economic centres, compared with only 12% today. I think that demonstrates the scale of the of the challenge, and how transformational Northern Powerhouse Rail really will be.

How is the Strategic Transport Plan for the North continuing to be developed?

The Strategic Transport Plan will in many ways be our framework for strategic transport investment over the next thirty years, of which Northern Powerhouse Rail is perhaps the biggest single project. It’s as much of an economic plan as it is a transport plan. It looks at which areas of the North need to be connected based on the transformational economic potential, whether that is linking the energy industries in Cumbria and the North East, or the Advanced Manufacturing hubs in South Yorkshire and Lancashire.

The Plan went through a full public consultation earlier in the year, and the feedback we got was excellent. We are now in the process of working with our partners to finalise the document before submitting it to Government early next year. I think this is the fundamental piece of work that we need the whole of the North to get behind. If we deliver the Plan in its entirety, including Northern Powerhouse Rail, we are looking at almost £100bn additional GVA and 850,000 jobs by 2050, above business as usual.

The most interesting part is that it is only an extra £50 per person, per year, living in the North of England above the current forecasted £100 per person spending levels. All of those benefits for that bit extra is a fantastic opportunity.

What are the biggest challenges faced by Transport for the North for the year ahead and the long-term?

The North is an attractive, diverse region and home to around 16 million people. We have vibrant communities, buzzing cities, five stunning National Parks, an abundance of talent and a wealth of high-performing businesses. However, from an economic perspective the region is underachieving. The economic value per person in the North (GVA) is 25% below England’s average, and our income per person is £7,500 less.

While the Strategic Transport Plan provides us with a strong economic case for why we need to better connect the North, and how transport can help us do that, there is a long journey ahead to deliver the schemes required, and ultimately rebalance the UK economy. We need to secure that funding from the UK Government to deliver long term investment in the North.

Alongside the Strategic Transport Plan will be our Initial Long-Term Investment Programme, this will detail the schemes we have identified now, some of which will be more urgent and deliverable in the short-term than others. We need to work hard to get those schemes in the pipeline as soon as possible. We also need to ensure we work closely with the supply chain to give them reassurance that these projects are coming forward, so they can have confidence to invest in the skills required build the infrastructure we’re proposing.

What is your long-term vision for the organisation?

I think my vision for the organisation is the same as any other person who lives in the North – I want the region to realise its potential, but equally be the best place to live.

Many will probably look to judge us on miles of track, or even economic benefits, which are good measures of what we have delivered, but only part of the picture. I want young people attending school and university in the North to be able to live and work here and have an excellent quality of life. Transport is the servant not the master, and we need to always remember that with what we are doing – if we continue to do that, then it’s half of the battle won.

Barry White is the Chief Executive at Transport for The North, and will be speaking on the role of transport in his vision for the North, at the Public Sector Solutions Expo on 20 November. To register or find out more, please click here.