Background: the rationale and development of Transport for the North

There is a strong case for more devolved decision-making in transport policy in England. Evidence from London and Scotland, as well as from overseas, suggests that greater devolution of transport powers can bring economic, social, democratic and environmental benefits. However, the precise nature of that devolution, and the appropriate spatial ‘tier’ to which powers should be passed, is a matter of some debate.

In November 2012 IPPR North published some preliminary ideas for a body called ‘Transport for the North’, as part of our wider work on economic prosperity in the north of England (IPPR North and NEFC 2012). We argued that the remit of this body should be to work on key strategic transport issues across the three northern English regions, particularly those issues that transcend the existing remits of local transport authorities (LTAs), and now the combined authorities. It would, we suggested, be a key means of improving transport integration in England.

During 2014 a number of important developments took place in this regard, including the following.

  • The formation of ‘Rail North’ – a consortium of 30 LTAs from across the North, which is involved in the tendering of the Northern and TransPennine rail franchises, and will co-manage these franchises once they are granted.
  • A £15 billion package of transport investments was proposed by northern city leaders, in part at the request of David Higgins, chair of High Speed Two (HS2), and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and dubbed the ‘One North’ proposition.
  • The Transport for the North partnership was formed, constituted of the five northern city regions together with Hull and the Humber, in order to bring forward more detailed One North investment proposals by March 2015, and to work with the Department for Transport on a northern transport strategy.
  • The 2014 autumn statement underlined the government’s commitment to the ‘northern powerhouse’, and stated that plans for the High Speed 3 (HS3) rail link should be drawn up by March 2015.

In this context, we have been carrying out research to address four key questions.

  1. What would be the main benefits of Transport for the North?
  2. What additional responsibilities could such a body take on in future?
  3. What role might it play in relation to integrated smart-ticketing across the North?
  4. What kind of institutional form might Transport for the North take?

This policy-development process has combined data analysis, a literature and policy review on transport bodies in the UK and Europe, three roundtables in Manchester, Newcastle, and London, and a series of interviews with senior stakeholders in the project and experts in the field.

Purpose, objectives and vision

There is a great deal of evidence demonstrating how vital a role transport plays in driving economic development, not least in what the OECD calls ‘intermediate regions’ outside capital cities and other big growth hubs. By connecting cities and towns, transport investment facilitates the interchange of goods, services, knowledge and skills, and builds so-called ‘agglomeration economies’ around areas of commercial specialisation.

The north of England has experienced disproportionately low levels of government investment in its transport infrastructure – low both in relation to London and, more importantly, in comparison with city-regions in continental Europe. These low levels of investment have historically held back economic development opportunities in the North. It is now widely recognised that carefully planned investment could unlock significant untapped potential for economic growth within and between the northern cities, as well as opportunities to address wider social and environmental concerns.

A significant part of the problem concerning transport investment in the North has been caused by the over-centralisation of decision-making structures and powers in England. There is evidence from London, Scotland and overseas that more decentralised transport planning and decision-making can lead to better outcomes for the economy and for transport users.

Based on our research, we propose that the vision for an enhanced Transport for the North (TfN) body should be:

to maximise the economic, social and environmental performance of the north of England by ensuring that it has the most effective forms of connectivity within and between its constituent parts, and extending out into national and international networks and markets.

This vision will be achieved through a clear focus on three overlapping outcomes.

Outcome 1: A more productive and competitive northern economy

  • Transform northern city-regions into an interconnected ‘powerhouse’ through a multi-modal, integrated transport system for both personal travel and freight.
  • Create a rebalanced economy with higher levels of investment in drivers of growth in the North, and greater tax receipts to the Exchequer as a consequence.
  • Strengthen the northern economy by improving business connectivity, competitiveness and innovation, and by boosting employment, productivity and wages.
  • Enhance connectivity to retail, leisure and tourism opportunities across the North.

Outcome 2: A more accessible and accountable transport network in the North

  • Ensure that transport connections – particularly public transport – are available and accessible, at a fair and reasonable cost, to all who live in the north of England.
  • Ensure that those who are often socially and/or geographically isolated, and those furthest from the labour market, are able to access transport connections.
  • Give transport users – whether private individuals or business interests – a strong and meaningful voice on transport issues in the north of England, not least where public money is involved.
  • Improve the customer experience by facilitating multi-modal travel through the use of the most advanced technologies available, including smart-ticketing and inclusive payment options.

Outcome 3: A more environmentally sustainable northern transport network

  • Reduce CO2 emissions by promoting sustainable transport solutions, including modal shift away from private car use and the electrification of key rail routes.
  • Ensure that all modes of transport take further steps towards reducing their impact on the environment.

Table A.1

A summary of Transport for the North’s intended outcomes

1. Economy

2. Accessibility & accountability


An interconnected northern powerhouse

Public transport accessible to all

Reduced CO2 emissions through targeted investment in sustainable transport options, including walking and cycling

A rebalancing of public expenditure and tax take

Fair and affordable fares and costs

Investment in rail electrification

Improved business connectivity

A strong voice for all transport users

Reduced private car usage

More flexible labour markets

A great customer journey experience


Connectivity to retail, leisure and tourism




Despite the overarching nature of these outcomes, it is important to recognise that the TfN body we are proposing is not intended to supersede or assume the powers of more local bodies, including the LTAs. Nevertheless, we do propose a ‘northern transport compact’ which would seek to align strategic planning processes both from the bottom up and top down.

Timetable and blueprint for development

In order to achieve these outcomes we have drawn up a blueprint, developed through roundtables and interviews with key players in the field, which identifies a wide range of actions that would gradually enhance the capacity of the current Transport for the North partnership in three overlapping phases. This blueprint is detailed in full in chapter 3 of this report, but the three phases of development can be summarised as follows.

Phase 1 (2015–2017)

Building on the Transport for the North partnership and Rail North consortium.

  • Between the One North proposals and the Rail North consortium, most if not all aspects of this stage are currently underway or in process.
  • Central and local government commit to investing in a pipeline of strategic transport investments brought forward by the Transport for the North partnership, and work begins on key projects.
  • Rail North develops a joint venture with DfT to co-manage Northern and TransPennine franchising arrangements.
  • A strategy for multi-modal service integration is developed, including fare-setting, smart-ticketing and branding issues.
  • The governance that would underpin these developments is already relatively well-developed; it is accountable and inclusive in the case of Rail North, and One North is still developing.

Phase 2 (2017–2020)

TfN becomes fully constituted as a single body covering all of the North, and its responsibilities grow.

  • TfN brings forward more detailed infrastructure plans and a multi-modal approach to scheme appraisal.
  • TfN co-manages the rail franchises, and takes on some of the responsibilities of Network Rail and Highways England; smart-ticketing becomes interoperable across all modes and geographies in the North.
  • TfN works to embed collaboration and build capacity, and the One North and Rail North projects become part of the single TfN body, which has a governance structure similar to that of Rail North but with an executive transport commissioner and formal advisory boards for passengers and businesses.
  • TfN works with city regions to take over station leases, and develops a rolling stock strategy.
  • TfN develops logistics, airport and digital connectivity strategies.

Phase 3 (2020–2025)

TfN takes on even wider responsibilities.

  • TfN finalises its governance arrangements following a review, and takes on responsibilities similar to those of other sub-national European transport bodies. It explores wider governance options, including an element of direct election.
  • A northern transport capital budget is allocated independently to TfN by central government, set according to a transparent formula over a time period of at least five years, together with greater borrowing powers.
  • TfN brings forward a long-term ‘northern infrastructure pipeline’, including the roll-out of multi-modal scheme appraisal and collaboration with constituent city-regions in major local capital investments.
  • TfN develops an arms-length body to compete for rail franchises as a public sector competitor, and takes over station leases as agreed with city regions.
  • Logistics, airport and digital connectivity strategies are rolled out.

Table A.2

Summary of proposed timetable for the development of Transport for the North

Phase 1 (2015–2017): Next steps

  • Investment secured for One North strategic infrastructure priorities
  • Rail North tendering process proceeds
  • Planning and capacity-building for extended TfN powers
  • A strategy for multi-modal planning and smart-ticketing

Phase 2 (2017–2020): TfN takes shape

  • New, inclusive TfN structure formally constituted and first transport commissioner appointed
  • Future infrastructure plans developed
  • Co-management of rail franchises, and the adoption of some Highways England and Network Rail responsibilities
  • Smart-ticketing becomes inter-operable across modes and regions

Phase 3 (2020–2025): TfN in the drivers seat

  • Governance review to include possibilities for an element of direct election
  • Earmarked transport budget devolved to TfN for a five-year period
  • TfN takes on wider responsibilities, including running rail franchise competitions, station management, and commissioning rolling stock
  • TfN develops an arms-length body to bid for rail franchises