Northern councils throw out Osborne’s transport plan

Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne

Officials have been told to re-write a major transport plan for the North which is expected to be a key element of George Osborne’s Budget later this month.

The Chancellor was due to be presented with an interim report on the plan today ahead of the Budget on March 18.

But that deadline will be missed after northern council leaders expressed concern that the first draft was too vague in terms of identifying particular transport schemes and timetables for their delivery.

The Treasury is also being pressed to include firm commitments on funding for the plan in the Budget.

One source familiar with the discussions said the process was likely to continue “up to the wire”.

The plan is being drawn up by Transport for the North, a body which brings together northern councils, the Department for Transport, the Highways Agency, Network Rail and HS2.

It was set up last year by Mr Osborne and asked to come up with a strategy that tackles the North’s major transport problems as well as options and costs for a transpennine high speed rail service dubbed HS3.

Mr Osborne sees better transport as integral to his vision of a “northern powerhouse” where towns and cities in the North work together to give them the critical mass they need to compete against major cities around the world.

An early draft of the ‘Northern Transport Strategy’ includes proposals to create a truly integrated regional rail network known as “TransNorth” connecting with the proposed HS2 high speed lines either side of the Pennines.

It promises to cut journey times between Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds to 30 minutes with a 45 minute journey time from Leeds to Hull.

Options for achieving the improvements include upgrades to the existing northern and southern transpennine routes or a new tunnelled route connecting the east and west arms of HS2 although, the report warns, “initial estimates suggest the costs may be very high”.

On roads, the draft report refers to the already announced study into the feasibility of a new transpennine tunnel connecting Sheffield and Manchester alongside a separate study by Highways England looking at the dualling of the A66 through North Yorkshire and Cumbria.

The report calls for ‘smart-ticketing’ that allows travellers to make easier journeys across the North although it warns the different technology and systems currently in use means an “evolutionary approach” will be needed to achieve this goal.

The draft strategy suggests there is potential for smaller airports such as Leeds Bradford and Robin Hood Airport to increase their short-haul flights allowing Manchester to concentrate on long distance connections.

It is also likely to be suggested that Transport for the North should become a permanent body overseeing transport strategy across Yorkshire, the North West and North East and informing Government policy.