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Northern Leaders Frustrated After Major Government Transport Group Kicked Into Long Grass

A high-speed train pictured at Manchester Piccadilly station (Alamy)

4 min read

A council set up by government to tackle transport issues in the north alongside regional leaders has not met in nearly a year, sparking frustration among stakeholders keen to "get on" and "make it work".

The Northern Transport Acceleration Council (NTAC) was launched by then-transport secretary Grant Shapps in summer 2020. It is believed to have met "regularly", but has not met since May 2022. Rail minister Huw Merriman has said that ministers are currently reviewing the role the NTAC plays in discussion on transport policy. 

Since then there have been various issues raised around the rail network, including timetabling, questions over the future of HS2, and calls for Avanti – which operates trains between London and a number of northern cities – to be stripped of its franchise following a decline in service. 

The rail minister has now suggested that officials are “reviewing” how they engage with northern leaders and the role that NTAC plays, but one northern MP has complained that they now feel “shunted into the sidings”. 

Labour MP for Barnsley Central and former South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis said he finds it “very strange” that the most recent meeting was last May, and felt ministers “should work out with northern leaders what is the most appropriate forum and then get on and make it work; joined up government is key”. 

Jarvis described previous meetings as “useful” for time with ministers, but suggested that they are “only properly helpful if people can build relationships and have faith in the process". 

He also complained that the irregularity of meetings had left participants with little to work with in terms of tangible results. 

“There is little point in doing sporadic gatherings, so there needs to be some sort of regular rhythm,” Jarvis added. 

When the council was launched, a Department for Transport release trumpeting its aims, said that the organisation would “ensure northern leaders have a direct line to ministers” and had been designed to “cut bureaucracy and red tape” to improve the transport network for passengers. 

Shapps said that the council would “allow us to engage collectively and directly with elected northern leaders,”

But mayor of the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram, who has been involved with the meetings, believed the mission had failed. 

He felt the council had got “stuck at the buffers very quickly” and “turned into yet another talking shop that rarely met”. 

“Far from ‘accelerating’ transport infrastructure in the North, it instead became symbolic of the exact type of inertia gripping both the country’s railways and its government,” he told PoliticsHome

“If this body was supposed to deliver the much-needed investment, delivery and transformation of our infrastructure, then it singularly failed. It says a lot about the government’s priorities that it hasn’t met since May 2022.”

 A Whitehall source who has had involvement with the forum told PoliticsHome that they were “surprised” the meetings had stalled and that the council had been intended as a “fairly permanent structure” in government discussion. They felt meetings had been “fairly constructive”.

Shapps was replaced as Transport secretary by Anne Marie Trevelyan when Liz Truss briefly became prime minister last year. Mark Harper has since taken up the position under Rishi Sunak

In response to a written ministerial question from Jarvis last week, Merriman confirmed that the last “full plenary” meeting of the group was on 23 May 2022, and that discussions focussed on electric vehicle infrastructure. 

“Core membership of NTAC consists of the transport ministers, northern metro mayors, the leaders of northern transport authorities, as well as the Chief Executives of Network Rail, Highways England and HS2 Ltd. and the chair of the NP11,” Merriman added. 

“Ministers are currently reviewing the format and structure of regular engagement in the north, including the role to be played by the Northern Transport Acceleration Council given its overlap with Transport for the North.” 

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We remain committed to and continue to support transformative growth plans for our railways including, as part of the Integrated Rail Plan, the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail.

“Since his appointment, the Transport Secretary has been working closely with local leaders and Transport for the North to improve rail services across the region.”

Transport for the North declined to comment when approached by PoliticsHome.

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