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Keeping the West Midlands moving

Keeping the West Midlands moving

🕔31.Jan 2018

Against the backdrop of big bids, some won and others in battle, and political fallout from the Mayor’s attempt to secure a precept, it could be forgotten that transport remains the function where Mayor Andy Street has most powers and influence, writes Kevin Johnson

Laura Shoaf, Managing Director of Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), addressed business leaders earlier this week examining how to secure more powers and investment in the Midlands and the North. Ms Shoaf exhibits almost that same air of positivity and energy upon which her political master, Andy Street, has built his profile.

The resilience of the region’s transport infrastructure; the sad state of cycling facilities and tough decisions to come on tackling poor air quality were three issues where the TfWM boss had to dial down the optimism level.

Members of the Downtown in Business Birmingham group gathered at the offices of Marsh to hear Ms Shoaf and Henry Murison, the director of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnerships group, discuss how local leaders and businesses should work together to maintain efforts to re-balance the country.

The West Midlands transport supremo painted a picture of regional riches, headlined by HS2’s arrival in 2026 together with the continuing rollout of Midland Metro, new Sprint services, revitalised train stations and new services underpinned by a 20 year Movement for Growth integrated transport strategy.

As with the wider devolution agenda, it is easy to highlight today’s problems but it’s also worth remembering how the region has moved forward.

Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) was set up as part of the WMCA – built on the foundations of Centro and then the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority – to co-ordinate investment to improve the region’s transport infrastructure and create a “fully integrated, safe and secure network.” It is also responsible for assessing and planning the region’s future transport needs so the network can meet the demands of businesses and a growing population.

The Movement for Growth strategy includes a “fully integrated train, bus and rapid transit system, strategic road and rail improvements and a comprehensive cycle network, all underpinned by smart technology including ticketless travel and real time information.”

It also has a package of measures to connect the region’s transport network to HS2 from 2026 and unlock the full economic potential the new line will bring. As Ms Shoaf reminded business leaders, the Mayor is committed to ensuring nobody in the region is more than 45 minutes away from accessing one of two HS2 terminals in the WMCA area.

TfWM says this represents a £4 billion a year boost to the regional economy and 50,000 new jobs.

TfWM has a strategic programme covering more than £3bn of committed schemes which are “wholly or substantially funded”. Schemes on which work has already commenced and which will be built over the coming decade include:

  • Curzon Street HS2 station connected transport schemes (Metro, Sprint) as part of HS2 Connectivity Package
  • Trebling of the Midland Metro system over the next 12 years, including extensions from New Street to Edgbaston; Curzon Street to Brierley Hill and Digbeth to Birmingham Airport/HS2 Interchange station
  • Three ‘Sprint’ routes to be fast-tracked for 2022 Commonwealth Games: A34 Walsall Road through Perry Barr, A45 Coventry Road to NEC and Sutton Coldfield via Tyburn Road
    Local stations programme which includes the Camp Hill and Water Orton lines
    A redeveloped Coventry railway station
  • Multi-modal transport interchange at Birmingham International rail station
  • New heavy rail connection between Walsall and Wolverhampton, with new stations at Willenhall and James Bridge and a Midland Metro extension through Wolverhampton city centre to railway station, which itself will be redeveloped as part of the interchange project
  • “Smart” motorways, major improvements to the M6, motorway junctions and other key routes
  • Improved road junctions at congestion hot spots, new cycle routes.

Andy Street set out a series of transport ambitions in his campaign, recognising one way the electorate would assess his mayoralty would be his impact on reducing congestion.

The new West Midlands Rail franchise arrangements; the successful Commonwealth Games bid and extra investment for the Midland Metro in the last budget have enabled the Mayor to chalk up early transport wins.

The scale of transport development – notably HS2 and motorway improvements – is both a blessing and curse. Strategic transport works have the potential to cause major chaos and are not under the control of the Mayor or his transport arm.

Meanwhile, the ability of the major utility companies to cause road disruption with no or little notice makes delivering an integrated transport network that keeps the region moving more than a challenge.

In a region where the manufacturing and logistics sectors are critical, and where ‘just in time’ deliveries are essential to the operations of many businesses, serious transport disruption could seriously undermine economic growth.

The Commonwealth Games in 2022 has given Ms Shoaf and the Mayor another reason to persuade government of the need for a regional control centre. A new Network Resilience directorate, as well as one focusing on customer service, has been established at TfWM in the last year.

Along with “integrated” and “smart”, the other buzz term among transport bosses is “modal shift.” Moving passengers from cars to less congested, lower polluting and healthier forms of transport is a guiding principle.

The transport supremo is increasingly concerned by air quality and measures, including low emission zones, could be needed to tackle a growing problem in urban areas. But the responsibility falls to local authorities rather than the Mayor or WMCA.

Ms Shoaf told Downtown members that the number of conversations between local leaders on the subject of air quality had dramatically increased in the last two years.

Until Andy Street’s election and George Osborne’s downfall from Government, there was a sense that leaders in Manchester and across the North were better at lobbying government and securing investment and powers.

At the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last Autumn, Chamberlain Files detected a degree of depression in fringe meetings where the Northern Powerhouse was the subject at hand.

But in recent months, the northern lobby has come out fighting – not least in reacting to decisions from the embattled Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling.

The North and Midlands – more in common than divides?

Earlier this month, Transport for the North published its 30 year, £70bn strategy with the Northern Powerhouse Rail project (or HS3 as it’s sometimes been termed) centre stage.

Henri Murison, the man appointed by George Osborne to run his Northern Powerhouse Partnership lobby group, told this week’s gathering that the Powerhouse and its £25bn rail line was based on a vision for connecting up the North, its cities and integrating with HS2.

HS2 had the potential, Mr Murison said, to bring the North and Midlands together with a shared fate. As HS2 enthusiast Lord Adonis has said from the outset, the value of HS2 is not in quicker journey times between London and Birmingham but in connecting up the country, particularly the North and Midlands.

As directors working for two of the most positive politicians in the country, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that Ms Shoaf and Mr Murison are optimistic about future devolution and regional investment.

The Government’s focus on Brexit is actually an opportunity, argued the NPP chief.

Take the initiative; convene business to make the case and bring resources; and stop seeking permission are the way forward.

The battle was not between Birmingham and Manchester, or even with London, but with Whitehall.

Uninformed decision making at distance and outdated models for assessing return on public investment need to be overcome, the regional champions argued.

The collective strength of elected regional mayors, along with London counterpart Sadiq Khan, would be critical according to Mr Murison.

Pic: Henri Murison, Northern Powerhouse Partnership; Laura Shoaf, TfWM, courtesy @amardeepgillT_H

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