£20m boost to develop transport connections across the UK

The UK government has set out its vision to boost transport connectivity across and between the whole of the UK, as part of ambitions to level up across the country.

The government will also consult on cutting air passenger duty on internal UK flights and will commit £20m to develop plans for upgraded rail, road, sea and air links.

The measures were announced following the interim report of Sir Peter Hendy’s union connectivity review, published today (10/3/21). In June, Sir Peter Hendy was asked by the prime minister to explore ways that transport could better connect all parts of the UK. The resulting interim report sets out how a UK strategic transport network would help deliver this ambition – claiming that such a network would significantly expand and upgrade direct transport connections in the UK across road, rail, sea and air, helping to reduce delays and bottlenecks, and stimulate economic growth. 

Improving rail links helps cut carbon emissions and so, as well as considering how transport links can better connect the UK, the prime minister will consider their environmental and social impact – taking into account how they will improve the quality of life of the people that use them.

The potential network will now form the main focus of Sir Peter’s continuing investigations, with his final report in the summer looking to identify specific transport upgrades that could form the backbone of the network’s ambitions.

To jump-start some of the projects identified by Sir Peter, the government has committed £20m towards exploring the development of projects including:

  • Improved rail connectivity between the north coast of Wales and England;
  • Upgrading the A75 between Gretna, Dumfries and Stranraer – a key route for south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland but almost entirely single-carriageway;
  • Significantly faster rail links from England to Scotland, including looking at options to enhance the West Coast Main Line;
  • Rail improvements in south-east Wales, building on ideas from the Welsh government’s Burns Commission.

The government is also announcing that a consultation on aviation tax reform will be published in spring 2021. The consultation will include options to change the APD treatment for domestic flights, such as reintroducing a return leg exemption or creation of a new lower domestic rate.

In addition to looking at the case for increasing the number of international distance bands, ministers say the government will continue to decarbonise domestic aviation as part of its ambition to reach net zero, including through mandating the use of sustainable aviation fuels. All domestic aviation emissions are captured in carbon budgets.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “It’s now time to build back better in a way that brings every corner of the UK closer together. We will harness the incredible power of infrastructure to level up parts of our country that have too long been left off the transport map. This pioneering review by Sir Peter Hendy gives us the tools we need to deliver on our ambitions for a UK-wide transport network that encompasses sea, rail, and road – and I also want to cut passenger duty on domestic flights so we can support connectivity across the country.”

Sir Peter Hendy said: “Devolution has been good for transport, but it has also led to a lack of attention to connectivity between the four nations, due to competing priorities and complex funding. A UK strategic transport network could resolve this, with its core objective centred around levelling up across the whole of the UK.”

The Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) welcomed the interim report, but stressed that net zero and placemaking should be key drivers of its success. Matthew Farrow, ACE director of policy, said: “The interim review is right to argue that transport connectivity will remain vital post-Covid both for people and freight. It also makes a strong case for a UK-wide transport strategy which we would support. Net zero must be a key driver though, along with a recognition that levelling up will be best-served by integrating transport investment with wider placemaking approaches.”

A High Speed Rail Group spokesperson welcomed the report and said: “A truly national high speed rail network will be essential in not only improving capacity, but levelling up our economy and reaching our 2050 net zero goals. With the Union Connectivity Review set to be published this summer, the government should commit to funding the final report’s recommendations as part of the next spending review.”

Sub-regional body Transport for the North said the north must be central to plans to better connect the UK and drive the levelling up agenda. Tim Foster, interim strategy and programmes director at Transport for the North, said: “The north must be at the heart of the mission to better connect the whole of the UK and level up. Investment in our infrastructure is critical to improving key routes across our borders to Wales, Scotland and further south. It’s positive to see the early rail and road projects highlighted by the review strongly aligned to those in our own infrastructure pipeline for the north.

“Long-term commitment to a transformed rail network for the UK - including Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 - must also now form the backbone of better connections across the union. Doing so will deliver more rail capacity and increase reliability, as well as cutting carbon emissions and driving recovery of our economy.”

Rail Industry Association chief executive Darren Caplan said: “Rail has a vital role to play in the UK’s economic recovery from Coronavirus and in achieving net zero by 2050, but to do so it needs certainty on planned rail schemes, like HS2 Eastern Leg, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Midlands Rail Hub, as well as visibility of upcoming rail enhancement schemes, and the decarbonisation and digitalisation of the network. The rail industry looks forward to working with the government to take these forward, supporting jobs, investment and economic growth as we emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic.”

The government will receive the final union connectivity review recommendations ahead of the Spending Review, where it will consider and confirm funding plans for delivering improved connectivity across the UK.

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