Mark Thompson: It's time that the UK made a better job of joining up its economic hubs

Mark Thompson, managing director of Newcastle-based Ryder Architecture, says a sea change in attitude is needed on transport plans

HS2/PA Wire The proposed HS2 rail link
The proposed HS2 rail link

Reaching somewhere more quickly doesn’t just require speed. It requires planning, routes, infrastructure, technology … vision. We all know the story about the hare and the tortoise. Speed gets you only so far.

If we are to make our transport system fit for future generations, then significant investment will be required in tracks, highways, vehicles, planes, stations and airports. But we also need investment in ideas, ones which challenge the approach now.

The capital is currently a magnetic force pulling everything towards it, or to misquote “all routes lead to … London” (sic). BIS minister Nick Boles warns it would be a “historic error” to make “huge” investments in London’s infrastructure before improving transport links in the north.

The real opportunity lies in developing an integrated UK wide transport strategy, something empowering through its connectivity - locally, regionally, nationally and globally. Improving connectivity across the country can catalyse the nation’s economic potential.

Much transport infrastructure has developed around city region hubs, which has clear advantages due to their ability to create agglomeration and catalyse economic development.

But how well has the system joined up these economic hubs? With a journey time by train or car of over three hours from Liverpool to Newcastle … not too well !

Let’s take train. The House of Lords economic affairs select committee is rightly shining the spotlight on cost, but isn’t it strategy and vision that is of equal importance? The whole High Speed agenda will only complement the whole of the country if it properly connects it all - north, south, east and west.

To plagiarise Jim O’Neill, chairman of the RSA City Growth Commission, “We require bolder efforts to improve our infrastructure … especially physically, creating agglomeration. Greater connectivity between ManSheffLeedsPool and this seven million person region could start to see the level of scale we need for change.”

Shouldn’t HS2’s first priority then be to improve the connectivity of these regional powerhouses spread right across the north from Liverpool to Newcastle, as much as to London?

The potential HS2 train design
The potential HS2 train design

There would appear to be a lot riding on it financially with estimates suggesting devolved UK city regions can boost economic growth by up to £79bn a year by 2030.

Newcastle City Region has already paved the way for planning its own transport investment, timetables and routes right across the region and Greater Manchester has quickly followed.

The cross Pennine HS3 will clearly play its part creating a better connected UK wide economy by linking Manchester and Leeds, but it needs to be built alongside existing plans for HS2 or we run the risk of finishing a system which is out of date by the time it is complete.

Clearly financial anomalies need addressing too. Transport spend per head is £2,700 for London, but about £5 in North East England, according to latest research by the IPPR North think tank. Yet Newcastle city region has the only positive balance of trade of all UK regions and is positive net exporter. Can we afford not to link this powerful economic hub at the earliest opportunity?

The government has funds, with £42bn planned for the development of superfast train travel as part of HS2.

But train is only one part of the jigsaw. The government’s approach with roads is predominantly to hand out cash for projects based on congestion, rather than economic growth. With car ownership set to increase by 30% by 2020 (David Leibling, RAC Foundation, 2008) that hardly appears to be a sustainable solution. Again a new ideology is necessary and a band aid approach must be replaced by bigger, bolder vision.

How a train on HS2 could look as it speeds between London and Birmingham
How a train on HS2 could look as it speeds between London and Birmingham

Ryder Architecture’s work in this sector is driving forward some of the technological changes required for tomorrow’s transport needs. Working in partnership with clients such as Network Rail and local councils we are planning new networks, facilities and capacity.

Within a radius of about 200 miles from Newcastle upon Tyne to Stoke on Trent, we are playing our part in transforming the transportation landscape.

In the former we have created a new landmark city gateway station by renovating a listed building, modernising a major hub, increasing footfall and customer experience through retail and modernised ticketing. The latter in Stoke sees us develop exciting plans for a proposed futuristic international HS2 hub for the city, maximising the potential for economic regeneration, connecting the University Quarter to business and enterprise, and creating a new urban area around the station.

Roughly in between, in Newton Aycliffe, our new manufacturing facility for Hitachi Europe is becoming home to state of art superfast trains.

The way we approach each commission bears similarity though, looking at the potential to unlock economic regeneration through a wider overview of integrated transport needs, working closely with clients and challenging their thoughts to really develop long term sustainable solutions.

Being spread across the country - Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Newcastle - clearly helps nurture a national perspective.

A sea change in attitude needs to be the first step on a journey to an exciting new future.

All aboard…?

Mark Thompson is managing director of Newcastle-based Ryder Architecture.

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