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Transport is the core of levelling up

The New Statesman convened parliamentarians, local government and industry for a round table to discuss UK connectivity.

In late June in County Hall, overlooking the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames, the New Statesman held its inaugural Politics Live conference. Gathering leading figures from politics and industry to discuss the most pressing issues of the day, hundreds of delegates joined New Statesman journalists in conversation with the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, the celebrated developer of the Covid-19 vaccine Sarah Gilbert, and the health and social care select committee chair Jeremy Hunt, among many others.

As part of the event, and in conjunction with the West Coast Partnership rail franchise, the New Statesman also convened a round table of parliamentarians, private sector representatives and industry experts to debate the role of transport infrastructure in driving the levelling-up agenda.

Andrew Stephenson, the Minister of State for Transport, with a brief including responsibilities for HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, the Transpennine Route Upgrade and skills, opened the discussion. “Transport is absolutely at the core of levelling up,” he told the panel, with major projects such as HS2 representing what he called a “mammoth undertaking” that would “transform and level up communities”. Not only would the improved connectivity generate serious productivity gains, expand mass transit capacity, help get cars and freight off roads and therefore contribute to achieving net zero goals, but it would also boost growth through the thousands of jobs and the economic multipliers generated through the supply chain.

Following on from the minister’s opening remarks, Richard Scott, director of corporate affairs at train operator Avanti West Coast, described some of the capital investments and projects led by his organisation that are currently under way across the rail network.

“We’re investing in stations, we’re investing in our fleet – there is nearly £120m going into the Pendolino [passenger train] fleet”, he said, adding that diesel-owned vehicles were also being replaced with electric stock to improve sustainability. “That’s supporting jobs in places like Widnes and Newton Aycliffe… as well as local suppliers supporting things like our first-class packages”, he added, highlighting the social value generated through infrastructural investment in every region of the UK.

Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for transport, emphasised how her party’s transport priority was linked to climate change. “A lot of [Lib Dem] policy is about encouraging people onto buses and onto rail,” she told delegates. But improving that kind of public transport connectivity could also help level up Britain’s regions, as well as helping disadvantaged residents of large cities such as London, who are often overlooked in the levelling-up debate.

Seb Dance, deputy mayor of London for transport, echoed some of Olney’s concerns. Much of his remit is focused on achieving the target of 80 per cent of all the capital’s journeys being taken on public transport or by active travel by 2041. “Not only does that help us with net zero,” he said, “but it’s also healthier for our passengers.”

Dance hit back at suggestions that London has been the beneficiary of generous subsidies while other areas went without. Mass transit systems were always costly, he pointed out, but generated much larger economic benefits than their initial outlays. “Places like Singapore have transport networks funded by 75 per cent government subsidy,” he said, adding that only around 20 per cent of Transport for London’s costs were met by the Treasury.

Hal Stevenson, senior public affairs manager for UK and Ireland at Lime – an app-based business that enables users to share “dockless” pedal bikes, electric bikes and electric scooters – provided a slightly different perspective. The focus of Lime, Stevenson said, was for “last-mile travel” in urban environments, particularly those with better cycling infrastructure. Its services are offered in partnership with local authorities as well as rail providers and is helping reduce the use of private vehicles for short journeys.

Adam Hawksbee, deputy director of Onward, the centre-right think tank, said that while transport was important to the levelling-up agenda, and was crucial to helping join up labour markets and improving productivity, it was not a panacea. “Very separate labour markets often don’t come together because of a skills mismatch,” he said, citing Onward research into the topic. Poor health outcomes, crime and anti-social behaviour were also impediments to realising the full potential of improved transport, he said, and “a big part of the solution… is accountable and powerful local leaders” to integrate multiple policy areas into the levelling-up and connectivity framework.

The Conservative MP for West Dorset and a member of the transport select committee, Chris Loder, wanted to foreground the fact that many of his constituents saw levelling up as a northern-only project and one that only focused on large cities. Bus cuts and extremely infrequent services were the norm in his rural constituency. “Your average elector in the south-west believes that levelling up is about the north,” Loder told the room, making it clear that investment decisions had to take every area of the country into account.

Jo Field, president of the not-for-profit Women in Transport, reminded the round-table participants of the importance of diversity in the transport workforce. “Levelling up is about levelling up for everybody,” she said. “The transport workforce is only around 20 per cent [female] and there’s a real lack of ethnic minorities in leadership roles… we need a diverse range of voices in planning, design, delivery, construction, all the way through to operations.” A more inclusive approach and better representation, particularly on major projects, would allow for increased levels of stakeholder support, improved engagement, and better project outcomes that matched the needs of the whole community rather than a select group, she added.

Richard Bradley, head of strategy at regional transport body Midlands Connect, reminded the gathered experts that levelling up was about addressing Britain’s broad geographic inequalities. “We have a situation now where all roads lead to London,” he said. “There’s a huge east-west connectivity issue.” Bradley said that transport improvement plans had national, regional and local dimensions, and key to resolving them was a recognition that a one-size-fits-all and top-down approach wouldn’t suffice.

Martin Tugwell, chief executive of another regional body, Transport for the North, said the Treasury’s system for assessing whether or not a project was funded needed to be reformed beyond narrow business cases, and look into “the environment and social equity as well”. By way of example he cited how investment decision-making needs to “account for things like helping an ageing population maintain their independence by having access to buses, therefore leading to a better quality of life and reduced pressure on health and social care systems”. “Green Book” spending rules reform, currently in the Treasury’s pipeline, was just the beginning to changing a long-standing culture, he said.

Delegates were keen to share their perspectives on the transport network and the levelling-up project, agreeing that an integrated, holistic and cooperative model was needed to realise the full benefits of public investment. Connectivity will be key to closing the gaps between Britain’s regions and providing opportunity to all areas of the country, but to drive that agenda forward will require the inclusion of diverse voices from government, industry, the opposition benches, local and regional transport bodies, and public policy professionals – all key to ensuring the levelling-up agenda continues as a cross-sector project centred on partnership and collaboration.

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