It’s probably safe to say that there’s never been a time of greater upheaval, challenge or, indeed, opportunity for UK businesses. Whether its Brexit, ongoing deep-rooted issues around skills, or the stop-start nature of devolution, there seems to be an ever-expanding list of “things that need sorting” that face us all.
Something that comes up time and time again are the almost daily problems of a creaking transport system, as a result of decades of under investment and neglect. And not just here in the north of England - it is a nationwide issue.
But help is at hand through Transport for the North – England’s first statutory sub-national transport body and, on the back of the recent report into the summer’s rail timetable meltdown, its remit is as much about managing and planning as it is building much-needed new rail lines and roads.
It is now just over four years since the then Chancellor, George Osborne, first used the phrase 'Northern Powerhouse' in public. It seems a lifetime ago looking back and considering the current business environment we are in.
It is fair to say that progress in building the Powerhouse has been good in parts and poor in others, where one area has leapt forward others have failed to keep pace. But the Powerhouse isn’t just about individual pockets of activity, it is about the whole. It is about freeing up business from the constraints of poor connectivity to boost growth as well as allowing residents and employees a truly genuine option to move around freely for leisure as well as work.
Recently, nine Chambers of Commerce from right across the Northern Powerhouse came together to meet with Transport for the North (TfN) at Greater Manchester Chamber. TfN Chief Executive Barry White led the discussion and was quite clear on the shape and direction of what needs doing as well as calling on the support of businesses for key projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail.
The ambition is simply to “bring the North closer together” by investing in the right schemes, in the right place, at the right time – the ones that give maximum benefit to people and business not just those that satisfy the accountants in the Treasury – so that no matter where you live you will have easier access to jobs and distance will not be a barrier.
It isn’t just about quicker journeys though, capacity and reliability are also key watchwords – both on rail and road. Congestion is a symptom of success as well as a huge threat. Bottlenecks exist around our ports, on our major road routes, in city centres and also at pinchpoints on the rail network. That is why TfN are setting out the case for substantial investment and making clear cases for extra funding from government to put right the issues that have built up over the last few decades.
But funding isn’t just enough on its own – the ambition is that without governance and a firm management structure in place then the risk is very much that the big decisions are still taken remotely and we end up back where we started. That’s where Transport for the North will have a big part to play in making sure that the work gets done and it gets done right.
To do that will need the support of a huge range of key organisations including the Chamber network across the north. The first meeting was an initial step in bringing all this together and energising business to get involved with the new way that our transport will be built, developed and run.
There is a lot of lost time to make up for and whilst things aren’t perfect, there are plenty of improvements coming: new rolling stock, new plans for transport corridors based on opportunity, and smart travel. These don’t need new powers just effective delivery and connected thinking and action from all the relevant bodies.
The Chambers will hold regular meetings with TfN, and others, to make sure that the most important bit of the Northern Powerhouse – effective connectivity between the north’s major economic centres - becomes a reality. We don’t just need it here in the North - the growth that it will unleash will have a UK-wide impact. Something that’s needed now more than ever, and is even more crucial than when Mr Osborne made his speech four years ago.