Senior figures have reacted with dismay to the reduction of support for Northern transport projects, claiming measures including the axing of backing for smart ticketing betray the “levelling-up” agenda.
A Transport for the North board meeting was held yesterday to discuss ways forward, after the Department for Transport told TfN earlier this month that its core budget will be cut from £10m to £6m in the next financial year – a reduction that follows an in-year emergency reduction in the current year.
Funding for the £150m integrated and smart ticketing project, a banner scheme for TfN that saw Jeremy Acklam brought in as director in summer 2020, is to be cut entirely, £15.8m having been allocated in the previous year and £33m being asked for in 2021/22.
Speaking following the meeting, TfN finance director Iain Craven said: “Transport for the North’s board has clearly indicated it’s disappointment and concern that, at a time when the Government’s levelling-up agenda is needed most, funding is being cut, putting Northern investment and jobs at risk.
“It falls substantially short of what we outlined the North would need to level-up infrastructure and accelerate benefits to the region. There is a real worry that this signals a diminishing ambition for the North, rather than pump-priming the region’s economic recovery.
“Establishing Transport for the North was a symbolic moment for devolving power to Northern leaders. Our members have clearly indicated the ambition that, over time, TfN should have a greater role and more oversight of investment, but the opposite is proposed.
“We are seeking an early meeting between our members and the Transport Secretary.”
Grant Shapps, who took over as Secretary of State for Transport in 2019, holds Cabinet responsibility for the Northern Powerhouse. Last year, he set up the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which was billed as offering Northern leaders a “direct line” to ministers.
The only funding commitment made by the DfT beyond the £6m core budget, which covers areas such as staffing and support costs, is £75m for the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.
Papers prepared for the TfN meeting showed that key items for discussion also included developing and prioritising an investment pipeline, achieving greater accountability and public participation in transport policy, and assessing how a long-term pan-modal funding settlement could lead to better outcomes.
TfN, whose chief executive Barry White is due to step down in a matter of months, said that the loss of smart travel funding could delay the roll-out of contactless technology on bus, rail and light rail networks in key geographies, adding that the cuts are “likely to lead to workforce reductions”.
Lord Jim O’Neill, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “It’s extremely disappointing to see the contactless ticketing – one the North’s flagship transport projects – scrapped.
“The idea of a modern, contactless, Northern updated version of the Oystercard was central to the transport element of the Northern Powerhouse concept. This decision should be reversed.”
Alasdair Reisner, chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, said: “This is very disappointing news, and we would urge the Government to reconsider pulling promised investment from a body that has done more than any other to develop a cohesive vision for future transport across northern England.
“The Conservative Party won a majority in part through promising a ‘levelling up’ agenda. It is difficult to see how imposing budget cuts on Transport for the North will do anything other than undermine this agenda and set back the Government’s stated policy of narrowing the economic gap.”