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Northern Transport Summit Review - Patience with government wears thin

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

On Thursday 23rd February, we attended the grandly titled Northern Transport Summit at the Maritime Museum on the Albert Dock, right here in our home town.

Upon arrival, delegates were greeted by one of the city region's flagship zero emission buses.

Not a bad start.

Better, cleaner, cheaper, more frequent buses like these are key to improving our air quality, removing CO2 emissions and tackling congestion on our roads… WITHOUT the need to build new ones, so lots more of this please.

A thing of beauty: Hydrogen-powered travel!

And we mean LOTS.

Local authorities and city regions like ours are able to apply for government funding for these buses and, as welcome as this is, it needs to be massively scaled up so that we have an entire fleet. Surely, that's what levelling up is all about?

We should not be expected to be grateful for a dozen here and there. It needs to become the norm.

As for the conference itself, these gatherings can be a bit stale and corporate, but, far from being a back-patting industry event, this was an engaging, informative and often spikey occasion as the various challenges facing the North's transport infrastructure were laid bare.

The more of these events we attend, the more we learn, the more our confidence grows and the more we feel qualified to make a valuable contribution and to challenge the narrative.

Happily, conference Chair, Debbie Francis OBE, picked us out from the crowd and we asked the opening panel whether our northern transport leaders would be following Wales' lead and cancelling all major road building projects on the grounds that they're incompatible with the climate emergency?

Opening panel including CEO of TfN, Martin Tugwell (left) and Chris Boardman MBE (right)

It was interesting to observe how the majority of the panel, who had just been stressing the need to urgently decarbonise our transport infrastructure, quickly reverted to type with a variety of responses which all boiled down to "...but new roads are good for the economy".

The only exception to this was Chris Boardman MBE, Commissioner of the newly formed Active Travel England, who subtly endorsed our view (at least we like to think so!) by responding "you can't negotiate with climate change".

Thanks, Chris!

A packed house at the Maritime Museum as tensions rose

The next panel was by far the most entertaining of the day.

Among others, it featured Henri Murison, Chief Exec of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and James Heath, CEO of the National Infrastructure Commission, the latter being accused by the former of working hand-in-glove with the Department for Transport to scale back the integrated rail plans for the north. Heath strongly rebutted this, but it hinted at just some of the angst and frustration being felt by northern business leaders - not only at the pace of investment, but also at claims that the DfT has broken promises made to our region.

Things came to a head when a representative of the much maligned Avanti West Coast Partnership failed to "read the room" and asked a question along the lines of, "yes, we've had issues, but can't we all move on?". Murison let fly at this suggestion, turning the focus on Avanti themselves, claiming that they were responsible for the northern economy losing hundreds of millions of pounds of investment because of their chaotic mismanagement of the West Coast mainline... and demanding a public apology.


Telling it straight: Henri Murison, Chief Exec of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

It was to her credit that Clare Kingswood, Avanti West Coast's official representative on the day, stood up, fronted up, duly gave an apology and "owned it" as people like to say these days.

As entertaining as this was, you might be wondering what it has to do with Rimrose Valley and access to and from the Port of Liverpool?

Good question.

It all comes down to government policy - at pretty much every level. Whether you support HS2, or not, it was seen as a vital way in which the north could massively increase rail freight capacity, particularly the troublesome east-west connectivity, which is highly relevant to our cause.

Slowly but surely, this project has been scaled back and - once again - the north has had to bear the brunt of these cuts, most recently in last Thursday's major announcement by Transport Secretary, Mark Harper. (Much more on that soon).

Add to this the shambolic passenger train services run by Avanti, Transpennine Express and Northern and the atmosphere in the room that everyone has simply had enough, was palpable.

Cue the arrival of the government's Rail Minister, Huw Merriman MP.

No pressure.

In all honesty, he too fronted up and gave a seemingly genuine and well informed view of the lie of the land. Unlike other government Ministers we have dealt with over the past 5 years, he was sympathetic and appeared to share in the frustration of unrealised potential.

He acknowledged that, whilst government has to make difficult choices, more needed to be done and he was keen to work with our region's Metro Mayors on bringing about change.

Huw Merriman MP, Minister for Rail and HS2

He also acknowledged that he is uniquely placed to know what's required, having headed up the Transport Select Committee and made recommendations to the very department he now works for!

The next panel was a tour de force of Labour Northern Metro Mayors: the double act that is our own Steve Rotheram and Greater Manchester's Andy Burnham were joined by Jamie Driscoll, North of Tyne Mayor and Oliver Coppard, Mayor of South Yorkshire.

Each gave a tantalising glimpse of what transport in the north could look like... if we had the same opportunities and funding as, say, London.

Different modes of transport connected by one simple payment method, making public transport and active travel not only a better choice, but the natural one.

Whatever the collective noun is for a group of Metro Mayors!

Both Rotheram and Burnham clearly know their stuff.

They have a clear understanding of how vital transport is; both for the economy and for our quality of life... and a shared vision of how to get there; bringing buses back under public control being a priority for both.

That they work so closely together can only be a good thing for Liverpool and Manchester, as it increases their negotiating power when dealing with Westminster.

We firmly believe that, with greater and greater devolution to come, our Metro Mayor has a vital role to play - and may even hold the key to securing a better outcome to Port of Liverpool access and a better outcome for all of South Sefton.

If the LCR's freeport vision is meant to be the next big thing (and it's a BIG 'if'), let's do it properly, with world class infrastructure to match.

Surely this vision is something that the government can buy into?

After lunch we attended a breakout session on Ports and Airports, which felt like the obvious choice.

Sadly, it was a bit of a non-event, possibly because the meeting room was tricky to find! Considering hundreds were at the conference, barely a dozen people took part, opting for more 'exciting' options of rail, roads and buses.

As if to reinforce how underwhelming this was, our old friend (ahem) Baroness Vere reared her head again.

We last encountered her during an online meeting with National Highways, Sefton Council, and MPs Peter Dowd and Bill Esterson during her time as Roads Minister.

This is the lady, sorry, the Baroness, who told us we would be getting "a beautiful road" and had clearly been briefed beforehand by National Highways that our campaign was made up of a bunch of aggressive yobs... and spoke to us accordingly.

Having been shifted to Minister for Aviation, Maritime & Security in the latest reshuffle, she retains an interest in port access, but, unlike Rail Minister Huw Merriman MP, Baroness Vere was unable to make the trip to Liverpool.

Instead, we watched a pre-recorded address, which contained no revelations, or indeed anything particularly insightful... just vague references to "The North" as if we live on a different planet, which tells a tale.

Not Holly from Red Dwarf: Baroness Vere looms over the panellists who turned up

All of which led us to the keynote speech of the day from Shadow Transport Secretary, Louise Haigh MP.

Having bumped into her (almost literally) at the Labour Party conference and followed Labour's transport policies closely, as with Steve Rotheram, Louise Haigh is extremely impressive, knows her stuff and there is no doubt that she would deliver a better transport system than what we have today, at pretty much every level.

She used her speech to lay into the passenger rail operators mentioned above, to demand more from HS2 and pledged to do more for our bus services.

There was no mention of Labour's thoughts on the government's roadbuilding strategy, but that is something we and others must work on in the time between now and the next general election.

On the right track: Shadow Transport Secretary, Louise Haigh MP

All in all, this was a really interesting day and it was great that Liverpool got to host it.

We gained some valuable insights into where our Northern Leaders' heads are at with all-things-transport.

The future could be bright.

However, unless the government of the day turns 'levelling up' into more than just a sound bite, the North's ambitions, including a solution to our own, particular challenge, will continue to be frustrated.

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