Full-speed ahead: Leeds - Leading not pleading

Against the backdrop of a cross-party commitment to further devolution and the prospect of new investment in major national infrastructure projects - such as HS2 and new airport and road capacity – we’re hosting a series of roundtables across the UK with the Smith Institute to discuss what’s needed over the next five years to ensure that transportation within and between our cities and regions, provides the foundation for sustainable growth.

We were in Leeds for the third of our discussions, where there was a marked confidence about the prospect of the region taking more control of its transport agenda. The consensus was that West Yorkshire should be leading the case for greater powers - proving it has the ability and capacity to deliver, rather than simply pleading for additional resources.  

Continued investment in infrastructure, particularly transport infrastructure, was considered fundamental to rebalancing the economy within and across the region.  At the heart of Leeds’ overall strategic plan is addressing the challenge of a lack of infrastructure investment over the past 20 years. In particular, improving inter-city and intra-regional connectivity was viewed as critical to future prosperity.

For example, there was lively discussion on why it still takes two hours to travel between the UK’s two major manufacturing centres – West Yorkshire and the West Midlands. This, in turn, led to a discussion on assessment of transport investment and whether the existing methodologies were appropriate; further, it was felt that devolution of powers could transform decision making.

One of the challenges highlighted at the roundtable was that transport in the region is still heavily reliant on the car, and road congestion and lack of public transport were seen as the biggest barriers to growth.

The combined authority for the region is less than a year old, yet the feeling was unanimous that it is providing better continuity and governance by being cross-party, and including the LEP chair. As a result the region now has a single strategic economic plan and members are working to the same agenda. More broadly and ambitiously the aim of the combined authority is to become a net contributor to the nation. It was thought that only with such an ambition the combined authority can confidently call for greater fiscal devolution.

And devolution was considered essential to its effectiveness. There was an over-riding sentiment was that the centre had not delivered and that local decision making was more effective and produced better outcomes.  Moreover, attendees made the case that the region had already proven itself – for example, the Grand Depart for the 2014 Tour de France had shown that not only could the region do things, but they could do them really well.

In this vein, one of the asks from those attending was not so much for greater resources but for greater control and more flexibility. They didn’t want small pots of funding from different departments and programmes, but a single pot from which to take strategic decisions and make joined-up plans.

There was real passion and optimism for the future from the roundtable attendees. Yet, the big question remains - how can they create a truly successful modern 21st century economy and deliver the necessary complementary infrastructure unless they have the devolved decision-making and funding to do so?  

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