On Wednesday, 13 January, Big Tent Ideas hosted a digital event on the topic of creating a ‘super-city region’ in Northern England and Southern Scotland. The event was chaired by Dr Paul Goldsmith, who led a discussion between George Freeman MP, Department for Transport Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Phil Blythe and Dr Alan James, focusing on the role modernised transport links can play in the regeneration of currently underserved areas.
Right off the bat, George Freeman, former Minister of State at the Department for Transport and Life Science Minister, voiced the disappointment a lot of people feel towards many recent infrastructure projects:
“We have a terrible track record of the government delivering grand infrastructure projects late,” he said, arguing that the cause of often cited inefficiencies is too much top-down decision-making.
“Whitehall is going to have to give away some power.”
Freeman also highlighted that transport connectivity is about much more than just urban areas, that have traditionally been at the centre of planning:
“Connectivity cannot be one massive trainline from south to the north. A lot of the left behind areas are rural, and getting them decent links to their nearest city is as important as connecting major urban areas.”
“Connectivity should be about making a transformational change in the prospects of the Northern part of England. HS2 is part of it, but my own view is that the connectivity within the north and between Scotland and the North is as important as the connectivity between Birmingham and London.”
“The Department for Transport needs to be about connectivity, not about the pouring of concrete into infrastructure projects.”
Dr Alan James, a leading expert on and investor in Transport and Infrastructure, agreed with Freeman, arguing that most politicians do not realise the radical economic growth potential offered by investments in modern mobility technologies and infrastructure:
“Revolutions in mobility enable massive economic growth and they happen fast.”
He argued that the world is currently on the cusp of a similar revolution in mobility as it found itself in at the start of the last century before the rise of the automobile, and that the UK should lead the way in investing in the creation of new modes of transport:
“We need to invest in the innovators that develop the core technologies making this happen. It’s not about investing in infrastructure in the first hand.
“Don’t think of this as subsidising infrastructure; think of it as investing in innovation!”
“We invented transport in the first place, let’s reinvent it for the future.”
Professor Phil Blythe, the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Transport and Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) at Newcastle University, agreed that Westminster has had too much influence over recent infrastructure developments. He urged the importance of always having a local focus when discussing how to plan for and invest in the future transport links in the UK:
“We need to understand infrastructure at the local level and solve problems with a vision for each specific region.”
“Having a super-region is very interesting. I think it’s important to think in those terms, because gov has a very London-centric view of transport.”
“We have great industries in the northern England and Scotland and a strong academic base, and need a vision for how we can build transport solutions and be ambitious.”