Preston train station Northern train, c PNW

Who controls the railways in the UK? Supposedly it's Great British Railways... Credit: PNW

The Subplot

The Subplot | Who is driving Northern transport policy?

Welcome to The Subplot, your regular slice of commentary on the business and property market from across the North of England and North Wales.


  • Asleep at the wheel: is anyone driving Northern transport policy?
  • Elevator pitch: your weekly rundown of what is going up, and what is heading the other way

Listen to the podcast edition


Who is driving Northern transport policy?

A new regional devolution deal leaves questions unanswered.

Woodchurch in Wirral, Carr Mill in St Helens, and Daresbury in Halton are lined up for new Merseyrail stations by Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram.

Rotheram announced the new stations days after levelling up secretary Michael Gove gave final approval to ‘level four’ devolution deals for Liverpool City Region, West and South Yorkshire, much of which is about who runs transport.

Ticket to ride

In the last few days, ministers published a technical paper on how the transport elements of the devolution deal will work. The aim is that each region has a single transport funding settlement; some more wiggle room for funding bus services and introducing zero-emission buses; some more oomph on integrated ticketing; some thoughts on local key road routes and how they are maintained to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion; some leeway on taxis and private hire; and encouragement to deal with pavement parking. These are all things most people would assume local councils can already do, but can’t.

Stations mean property

The big test is rail because, as the government’s level four offer documents concede, property development around new or growing railway stations is a big economic opportunity. Everything turns on a new partnership between city region mayors and Great British Railways to support the “identification of worthwhile opportunities for regeneration, commercial, and housing development in and around rail stations. The establishment of GBR creates an opportunity to increase commercial income and the local responsibilities of the eligible institutions will help to realise this.”

The quango that isn’t there

All of which is dandy, the only problem being that Great British Railways doesn’t yet exist. The details are all very Yes, Minister. The idea was floated in May 2021, and last year Derby was chosen for the HQ. A draft bill was published a few weeks ago that would, if it one day turned into a real bill, and that turned into an act, create the body. So far that’s it, except that the non-existent body with no start date has 200 staff and, soon, a highly-paid chief executive, if newspaper reports are accurate.

Alas, poor HS2

The mood is already poor, thanks to the HS2 cancellation. Last month, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership was fuming about the failure of the government to commit to the 7.5 miles of tunnel between Manchester Airport and the city centre, which was planned for HS2 but is also needed for the Trans-Pennine Northern Powerhouse Rail. In theory, Transport for the North ought to be the answer to the “who is in charge” question but in practice, as the fates of HS2 and NPR show, it hasn’t any influence.

Plan, mess up, repeat

A similar unhappiness is bubbling away in the South where the economics of a £6bn-£7bn rail line between Oxford and Cambridge are in doubt. “It is not yet clear how the benefits of the project will be achieved nor how it aligns to other government plans for growth in the region,” said the National Audit Office, pointing a finger at Whitehall by calling for “stronger strategic alignment across government.” In November this year, the NAO is due to publish a blockbuster report into how the UK does its railway thinking, including a look at the non-existent Great British Railways: it’s sure to be a gripping read.

More on those station-related development opportunities

Yesterday, the House of Commons Transport Committee had a go at working out who was in charge of strategic transport policy. Members quizzed Dame Bernadette Kelly, chief civil servant at the Department for Transport, and Will Garton, director of levelling up in Michael Gove’s department. Garton was asked how we incentivise development around railway stations. He said work is ongoing now.

Next, members asked: Is the economic uplift of that development being included in the business case for new rail schemes? At which point the civil servants began to squirm, admitting these were good points, maybe some technical work had been done, said Kelly. But the answer was scarcely encouraging if you’d like to see transport policy turn into new development and economic growth.

All in good time, minister

Kelly confessed that the business case methodology the department uses to make rail investment decisions “is not good at capturing…long-term strategic benefits.” MPs mildly suggested that maybe this way of doing it wasn’t fit for purpose, particularly for projects outside London. “We do need better ways to measure transformational benefits,” she conceded. Garton agreed they could probably do better if they could find metrics that worked. “It’s hard to do in a technically accurate way,” he added. It all sounded very Sir Humphrey, and not very urgent. If anyone is in the driving seat of UK rail policy, they weren’t at that meeting.


Going up, going down. This week’s movers

A bad week for nerves in the slightly tense Manchester office market, and another iffy week for those seeking value for money in the regeneration game. Doors closing, going down.

Manchester’s familiar faces

Another piece of the Sir Richard/Sir Howard regime at Manchester Town Hall is on the way out (if Julie and David Roscoe will forgive the expression). The pair have been respectively director and deputy director of planning at Manchester City Council for more or less ever. After 50 years in the town hall, they will move to shorter working hours from April as part of a phased succession plan.

Although decades in the job left some property noses out of joint – most temporarily, a few permanently – the Roscoes won deserved plaudits for being commercially aware and property market-savvy. The balance of supply and demand, now and in the future, was never far from their minds, nor their reports to council committees.

They step back as the city council ponders a new economic strategy, which appears to head in a different direction. It turns on a Resolution Foundation thought experiment about what kind of office space you’d need if you wanted to retain the same proportion of graduates as London (Subplot, 8 February). The office market is nervy about this, not just because Manchester isn’t London, but because it would mean consenting several times more office space than the office market has ever, ever managed to absorb. Expressions like “flood the market” and “does not make commercial sense” are whispered by the kind of people who are usually the town hall’s firm and unapologetic friends. It’s an anxious context for the Roscoes’ departure.

Regeneration games

The Budget has been delivered. The anaylsis begins. Will any of it make a difference to levelling up or to prosperity (and property development) in the North’s towns and cities? Value-for-money watchdogs have been saying for years that the answer is ‘no, it probably won’t’ (Subplot, 23 November).

This week, as we digest chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s announcements, the government is launching a search for a partner in its efforts to work out whether the £2.6bn UK Shared Prosperity Fund has so far made any measurable difference. If you fancy pitching in for the task, the paperwork is bulky.

A hilarious glimpse into the difficulties you’d be taking on is provided by an invitation, issued earlier in the year, to evaluate the impact of the £3.6bn Towns Fund. A preliminary look at the problems revealed three astonishing things that make the whole exercise a pretty much guaranteed waste of time.

These are the risks: that it’s “impossible to find statistically significant short-term outcomes,” that “the benefits attributable…to the Towns Fund… may be impossible to fully separate from… other initiatives”, and that the timing of the study means it “might not be able to detect statistically significant changes in the long-term impacts of the Towns Fund,” supposing the other two caveats mean there are any.

The 45 Northern Towns Fund recipients include Wakefield, Middlesbrough, and Darwen. The full list is here: the number of defunct or broken links tells its own story about progress.

Get in touch with David Thame:

Your Comments

Read our comments policy

An eagle eyed observation on the Resolution Foundation work in Manchester – if SHB was still around he would have challenged that assessment, triangulated it with a wide range of actors/ actresses in the market and nuanced it to reflect the medium term realities of the office market outside of London.

Let’s see how Manchester’s new Local Plan addresses the office market given the planning context it has been given by the Places for Everyone GMCA Plan (which also appears drastically over optimistic on office requirements in Manchester).

By Anonymous

The failure of the Southservatives,and London Labour, to provide the necessary funds for the 15 million British people who live in the North of England for effective trains, is prejudicial neglect. Hunt has provided funds for the Oxford/Cambridge line in the latest budget. This line will be linked to the North London commuter line formerly known as HS2, Crossrail, the Underground and Eurostar. This was the plan all along and there is nothing worthwhile,being invested North of Birmingham, nor will there be under Southerners, Starmer and Reeve.

By Elephant

Who is responsible for transport in the English regions. What regions? The English regions are artificial constructs created for EU regional development fund purposes. There is no East Midlands, North West,etc. They are journalistic inventions. There is no regional government in England. Everythings is mixed-up, muddled up. That is why there is no co-oridinating body responsible for transport in “the regions”.

By Anonymous

Anonymous 9.45 is right to be concerned. But the relentless foundation assessment needs a reality check. The city would run out of land before it delivered the numbers suggested and that’s without providing housing PBSA and hotels……..never mind more open space. I am sure that the measured progress that the city has followed for decades will continue. You can wish for as much floorspace as you wish but if the market can’t or won’t deliver it then quite simply it won’t happen

By Realism needed

I can’t really understand why MCC should have any role seeking to limit the supply of new office space, or how it has managed to assume one. It’s certainly an issue if there is an undersupply – like Liverpool – but it’s not for the Local Planning Authority to ration consents if they comply with national/local policy.
It’s not MCC’s role to reduce risk for developers or increase the value of consented sites by constraining supply, although this may be what has happened with the cap on co-living schemes.
If limits are being imposed through SRFs, or when MCC does deals over particular schemes, it does point to the issue people often raise about MCC playing favourites. It will be interesting to see if Julie or Dave pop up working for any of the usual suspects in due course.
There is also a wider point that the MCC’s Planning function isn’t simply there to service the development sector, even if it has appeared to exist in a silo more or less exclusively for that purpose in recent years

By Rotringer

Transport for the North has proven to be a very competent organisation in the past, and still is. As it was growing and successfully taking on more responsibility over strategic transport in the region, Shapps decided to cut the budget. Why don’t we back it when local authorities clearly see value in having the organisation in terms of providing data, strategic advice and resources when budgets are tight?

By David Crean

HS2 was dreamed up by the now Lord Adonis, sketched onto a cig packet and handed to the civil servants to flesh out.
Meant to benefit the North, well not really, it would only overwhelmingly benefit one city region.
The only way to benefit the North is to ignore London and get our own High Speed Network from West to East and then the North East , we need to stop this obsession with getting to London.

By Anonymous

Related Articles

Sign up to receive the Place Daily Briefing

Join more than 13,000 property professionals and receive your free daily round-up of built environment news direct to your inbox


Join more than 13,000 property professionals and sign up to receive your free daily round-up of built environment news direct to your inbox.

By subscribing, you are agreeing to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

"*" indicates required fields

Your Job Field*
Other regional Publications - select below