Moving our railways into the digital age, reducing overcrowding & cutting delays

Policy North welcomes announcement that will move our railways into the digital age, reduce overcrowding and cut delays. 

Earlier today the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Network Rail Chief Executive Mark Carne launched the ‘Digital Railway Strategy’. It will ensure train journeys become faster, more punctual, more frequent and safer with the introduction of innovative digital technology across the rail network. 

The newly unveiled strategy will ensure all new trains and signalling are digital or digital ready from 2019. This will allow more frequent services resulting in lower rates of overcrowding, cut delays by allowing trains to get moving more rapidly without disruption, safely allow more trains to run per hour by running trains closer together, and enable vastly improved mobile and wi-fi connectivity – allowing passengers to make the most of their travel time.

This is a revolutionary step that marks the shift of our railways and travel infrastructure into the digital age as we stand on the precipice of the upcoming and highly anticipated 4th industrial revolution. 

Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, said: 

“We are investing in the biggest modernisation of our railway since Victorian times to deliver what passengers want to see – faster, more reliable and more comfortable journeys.

“Passenger numbers have doubled in recent years – which means we need to invest in new technology to help deliver the reliable and frequent trains that passengers want.

“Investing in a railway fit for the twenty-first century will help the UK become a world leader in rail technology, boosting exports and skills. As we celebrate the Year of Engineering, this is a chance to show young people how digital innovation is opening doors to careers that will shape the future of travel.”

The introduction of new innovative digital rail technology will make sure the best use is made of the £48 billion that is being invested in modernisation of railways across the UK between 2019 and 2024. This renewal will include new and replacement signalling. The Government has also announced a £450 million budget specifically for digital railway schemes. 

Policy North is confident that when our national rail infrastructure is improved, the north of England will benefit from the boost in national connectivity, creating stronger links between the northern economy and the rest of the UK. We welcome the £5 million the government has set aside for Network Rail to develop proposals for embedding digital technology between Manchester and York. The £3 billion upgrade of that route, which is due to start next year, is what we and passengers have been calling for, so we are eager to see work get underway.

Staying in the Customs Union is the worst of both worlds

Commenting on today’s House of Commons debate on Customs and Borders, Callum Crozier, policy director at leading northern business think tank, Policy North, said:

The North of England economy is worth over £300bn and makes up 19 per cent of total UK output, but it has the potential to be so much more after Brexit, as long as we leave the Customs Union.

If we do not leave the Customs Union, there is no point in leaving the EU. Being ‘out’ of the EU but having to abide by its tariffs and being unable to strike new trade deals with the rest of the world defies logic.

With 90 per cent of global growth over the next 10-15 years set to be from non-EU countries, it makes no sense to lock ourselves out of these lucrative markets.

Policy North has proposed establishing free ports in the North post Brexit. There are currently no functional Free Trade Zones in the UK because membership of the Single Market and Customs Union effectively prevents us from creating them. That’s why leaving the Customs Union is essential.  

If the UK remains in the Customs Union, the Department for International Trade will rendered pointless as we will be unable to negotiate independent trade deals with other countries.  People will then rightly ask in what way we have left the EU. This debate is simply an attempt to frustrate Brexit and undermine the referendum result.

Northern transport bosses granted new powers

North transport bosses have been granted new powers to set the long-term priorities needed to get the North moving. 

On April 1st, Transport for the North (TfN) became England's first sub-national transport body. 

That means the North, through TfN, has a louder voice in bidding for cash and setting priorities. 

TfN now has the power to:

·         Develop and implement a Strategic Transport Plan

·         Act as ‘one voice’ for the North, relaying priorities to the Secretary of State

·         Coordinate and deliver smart ticketing systems across the North

·         Become a statutory partner in road and rail investment decisions

·         Oversee (jointly with DfT) franchised rail services covering Northern and TransPennine Express franchises through the Rail North Partnership team

·         Construct new roads, with the agreement of Government and relevant highway and local authorities

·         Decide on the allocation of capital grants

The new powers are being backed up by hard cash. 

Speaking at the first Transport for the North (TfN) Partnership Board in Liverpool, Rail Minister Jo Johnson said: 

“Between 2015 and 2020 the government will have spent over £13bn – more than any other in history – to transform northern transport, boosting economic growth and unlocking the incredible potential of the great towns and cities of the north. 

“Establishing Transport for the North is a crucial next step in giving the north greater influence than ever over transport investment. It is imperative that the north now speaks with a strong, unified voice to identify where we can work together to transform journeys for people."

The North now has more influence than ever over transport investment and money is being made available.  

The key now is to make sure we in the North use this new status to prioritise transport projects that will bring genuine economic improvements. 

Very few businesses believe moderately shorter journeys times between Humberside and Manchester or Newcastle and Leeds can catalyse serious growth in the North without an international vision. 

Brexit brings with it unlimited trading opportunities for the North. TfN must embrace this in its strategic plan and use its powers to create a Global North by integrating local transport alongside much better links with international transport hubs. 

Fintech - global potential for the North?

Recent developments in financial technology (fintech) could super-charge an already-buoyant sector and significantly boost the North East economy.  

The government this month announced its new fintech sector strategy – aimed at enabling the industry to flourish in the UK and cementing Britain’s position as a global fintech authority.  

The plan’s initial focus includes a new crypto assets task force, the next steps in ‘robo-regulation’ and a new UK-Australia partnership. Other measures include helping small firms to grow and reach new customers, new fintech regional envoys to ensure the benefits of fintech spread far beyond London and a set of industry standards to make collaboration easier. 

The strategy is a clear recognition of fintech’s vast potential,and the value of leading its international development.

The UK’s global standing in financial services is unquestionable. It can now build a similarly strong position in a related sector which has an incredibly bright future following rapid growth in recent years. 

The North East of England, still disproportionately reliant on public sector jobs, has much to gain.

A burgeoning fintech cluster is already taking shape in the region, populated by both start-ups and major employers, including True Potential in Newcastle, named European Business of the Year in 2017. 

It is somewhat fragmented, however, with lots of firms working on their own distinct part of the fintech market. The type of global fintech opportunities the government is courting, would help this cluster mature and develop a collective pull for more inward investment. 

Plans to forge a bridge between the fintech sectors in Newcastle and the Gulf market are already well underway, through various activities led by Policy North. New links to a lucrative region where fintech is underdeveloped but blossoming will directly boost the North East’s digital economy in the coming years. But fintech is almost universally growing in territories across the globe and there are many more patches of fertile ground to target. 

The new UK-Australia Fin Tech Bridge is a good start, and hopefully stronger bonds with other fintech markets will develop post-Brexit.

Just as in Britain, Australia’s consumers are clamouring for ever-more convenient and efficient ways of handling their finances. Organisations serving its 24 million population, meanwhile, continue to strive for tighter cyber security controls and new and innovative ways of ultilising data. 

The new fintech bridge will enable British firms to export their fintech products and services Down Under and bring together regulators, policymakers and the private sector from the two nations.

The government believes this will nurture a “fintech ecosystem” that supports the growth of both fintech markets.   

This is a prime example of the type of overseas agreement that could shape Britain’s success after Brexit. The new Global Britain will depend not only on the world’s appetite to buy our goods and services and do business here.

Eagerness around the world to tap into our knowledge and expertise in key sectors will also dictate our economic future. The UK has led the way in driving the advancement of fintech, and digital industries generally, in recent years; Yet we are still to foster a true home-grown giant on the scale of Amazon or Google. The sector strategy approach - combining our cutting-edge products and services, and openness to do business and share expertise – could change this, especially once we have the ability to fine tune our own trade deals.  

Other forms of support are now needed to bolster this broad fintech plan. Enhancing research and development allowances for fintech projects would be an obvious step forward. So too would a renewed push from the UK’s official innovation agency, Innovate UK, in promoting pioneering, UK-based research which has potential implications for fintech.

Such measures would act as catalyst for growth in this hugely exciting sector, and could bring much-needed opportunities to the North East.  

Stephen Purvis is chairman of the think-tank Policy North, which represents the interests of firms in the North of England.

Leaving the Customs Union is a fundamental element of Brexit

By David Harrison, Policy North president

The North of England is home to 15 million people and over a million private sector businesses.

If it was a country, it would be one of the largest economies in Europe; similar in size to Belgium.

Its economy is worth over £300bn and makes up 19 per cent of total UK output, but it has the potential to be so much more after Brexit, as long as we leave the Customs Union.

If we do not, there is no point in leaving the EU. In fact, we might as well just stay in, if they would let us. 

For being “out” of the EU but having to abide by its tariffs and being unable to strike new trade deals with the rest of the world defies logic.

With 90 per cent of global growth over the next 10-15 years set to be from non-EU countries, it makes no sense to lock ourselves out of these lucrative markets.

Doing so would deny the North of England this unique opportunity of becoming the globally trading powerhouse it once was. This in turn would stop Brexit from benefitting every UK region and not just the over-heated South East. 

Across the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humber, just 11 of 125 areas voted Remain.Most of those that did were in metropolitan city centre areas, with high student populations. While Manchester may be enjoying an ongoing resurgence, many parts of the Greater North are struggling.

Decades of EU membership correspond with an ever-widening gap between the North and London and the South East in terms of wages, skills and growth.

Gross Value Added per head of 100 is 74 in the North East, 80.7 in Yorkshire and the Humber and 85.4 in the North West. This compares to 109.8 in the South East and 172.1 in London.

Brexit voters of Hartlepool, Doncaster, Carlisle, Blackpool and Rochdale were not just voting to leave, but for change; a change that, under Labour’s deceptive take on Brexit, would not be possible.

I would urge caution from Jeremy Corbyn or any other politicians seeking to dilute or derail Brexit. The referendum was many people’s only chance to have a truly democratic vote. For some politicians to then treat the result with such disdain highlights problems with the political class that led many to vote for Brexit in the first place.

Let’s be frank, politicians aren’t exactly top of the popularity league. The London-centric, patronising view many remoaning MPs are now showing, risks further alienation and distance from the electorate. Certainly the disconnect between the North and Westminster feels wider than ever. 

Donald Trump’s remarkable rise is a prime example of the public’s fatigue with self-preserving, career politicians who hide behind a polished, politically correct façade.

America’s choice of president was a vote for a non-politician. His supporters saw him as a trusted businessman who had lost as well as won in business. He is the antithesis of what’s gone before in recent years at the White House.  

In our own historic vote, people knew what they were voting for, even without the exact details.

I was surprised by the outright hostility shown to us by our “partners” after our decision, however.

The behaviour of the EU heavies is all the more scandalous given that they are not representative of citizens of other EU countries – many of which are also in the throes of political apathy. Many people on the Continent are, like us, sick and tired of being ignored. 

At Policy North, our aim is to formulate ideas about free trade in the North of England and anywhere in the world that will trade with us. Right now, the North is being hampered by not being able to broker free trade deals, with anyone at all. 

Unlike Britain, the US does trade deals wherever it can. It also has more free trade zones than any other country in the world. These are also not possible in the EU as it seeks to protect against cheaper, non-EU goods. That protection means its citizens pay more for goods than they need to.  

The business case for a Great North Free Port, that could turn future free trade agreements into jobs and economic growth, is compelling and achievable.

Trade is the key to a northern renaissance and the rebalancing of the economy. Merely exporting public sector jobs to the North is neither sustainable nor imaginative. In reality, it acts as a restraint on regional enterprise and innovation. It also does little to arrest the deprivation and lack of opportunities that still remain in some areas as a legacy of industrial decline.

The fact that the EU trading block we are currently tied into has grown at a slower pace than any other section of the world for a generation or more hasn’t made things any easier for the North. Yet despite being hampered by rules that suit other countries but not necessarily our own needs, the UK overall has managed to maintain its position as the 5th largest trading country in the world. We could have achieved so much more – North and South - if free to do our own deals. 

Cross-border trade between business people is built on trust – trust then grows with every deal and friendship might even develop. Business people divided by nations often have lots in common with each other. It is only the respective politicians and miscellaneous bureaucrats that supposedly represent their interests which accentuate differences.

Entrepreneurs don’t want wars or physical domination of territories; or taxes on imported goods. Nor are we interested in the myriad of rules imposed on citizens by those who supposedly know what’s best for us – often who have slowly been put in positions where they take no risks but get large rewards.

We simply want to sell our goods to someone else at a profit, and thus employ people and grow. So, wherever possible, we should miss out the bureaucrats, on either side of deals, and avoid tribalism.

The way the EU is acting towards us is not a big enough reason on its own to leave the club. But it is an obvious indicator of an underlying problem. The mandarins are losing power and are trying their very best to cling onto it.

We should leave the EU primarily because we have lots in common with many other trading nations, as well as the great countries inside Europe, all of which export more to us, than we to them. In fact, we export only around 18 per cent of GDP to the EU.

This means leaving the Customs Union – a fundamental element of Brexit.

There is no going back on the will of the UK population. The sooner the politicians here and in Brussels wake up to that reality, the better for all of us.

David Harrison is president of Policy North with over 40 years’ experience in business.