Investment in region’s transport infrastructure is key to being competitive
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The Leeds City Region needs further investment in its transport system to compete effectively, say business leaders; who also discussed what short-term measures could be introduced to alleviate frustrations.
At TheBusinessDesk.com’s Leeds City Region roundtable, sponsored by Weightmans and DB Symmetry, transport was high on the topics for discussion.
James Sergeant, property partner at Weightmans, said the region’s biggest challenge was connectivity. He said: “That’s connecting people to bring them together, whether that’s in the office or elsewhere. It’s the infrastructure that surrounds that.
“It’s also about being competitive – connecting Leeds, Hull, Manchester and Liverpool. It is connecting the north to the south so that we can become competitive.”
Nick Quin, of Yorkshire Building Society, added: “One of the ways you attract that talent is getting better transport across the region. So, if you don’t want Leeds to be the only place that benefits, you have got to make sure there are good links across the region.”
Charles Johnson, head of planning development at Leeds Bradford Airport, said people wanted to do business in a
day, even when travelling abroad to the likes of Amsterdam. He said that the region needed convenience, ease and reliability across the region and beyond to build up its business strengths.
Andrew Dickman, DB Symmetry director, said that colleagues in his firm couldn’t rely upon transport between Manchester and Leeds and so regularly made journeys by car. “They don’t believe that public transport can get them there on time. That has to be a top priority,” he said.
Steve Johns, partner at Weightmans, added: “If you get the business into Leeds, then potentially it benefits the people living in the region. That brings us on to connectivity and the fact that lots of parts of West Yorkshire are very difficult to travel around. In the absence of any kind of mass transit system around the Leeds City Region, it continues to be a problem and not something that’s going to be resolved in the near future.”
Ben Still, managing director at Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “We do have a long term vision and pretty much know on rail what we want to try and achieve.”
He said it was thinking about inter-regional connectivity as well as beyond this. Still revealed that that there was 40% less economic activity between Leeds and the Manchester City regions than there should be. “That is because of the lack of reliability of the transport network,” he added.
Still said: “I think we still have questions about the future of what highways look like. There’s an awful lot of talk about the role of technology and autonomous vehicles but fundamentally they are way off.”
Still said the challenge is that “everything takes so long” to deliver in the world transport. He said even with a “fair wind” the new Bradford train station would not be delivered until the 2030s.
Of the transport upgrades scheduled to to improve links between Leeds and Manchester and Leeds and York, he added: “That’s probably six, seven years off. There will be major disruption as well.
“So what do we do in the short term to meet the needs of businesses, when actually the real changes you want to see are in the rail infrastructure and highways?”
Responding, Dr Martin Stow, chairman and director of University of Leeds Nexus, said: “We talk about being digitally connected and using modern technology. We recognise that these infrastructure projects will take a long time once they are funded to be able to deliver them. But the question is can we use what the technology more effectively to enhance communication in the short term?
“Most of my experience has been working with multinationals and for running start-up businesses. I found that even in large, multinational corporates, there was this reluctance to use video conferencing technology. So, I would spend most my time on planes going to the States purely because it would have to be a face-to-face meeting. In reality, I think there’s significant value that can be derived from actually using and embracing placing video technology, for instance.
“But there was even reluctance within that large corporate to do that. Now, when I was running a start-up, I had more control of it. We used modern communication technology much more effectively.”
Justine Shaw, a director at CPP Group, said that working for a global firm meant that the business used and invested
in web conferencing and webinars to make communication as easy as possible without the need for travel.
She added: “But it’s still a balance. There’s something about the fact that human beings want to be connected to human beings. So you can’t fully replace that. It’s a very different dynamic. While you can’t fully replace it, you can alleviate the pain and the congestion and the pain points in between.”
Attracting funding for the whole of the north
Henri Murison, director at Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said it was about attracting funding across the whole of the north. He said: “For the first time there’s an understanding, I think, that you do have to invest in the north’s transport system and also in the city region’s transport system.”
He said it would cost about £50bn to upgrade all of the north’s transport connections; not just in the cities.
Murison added: “I think it’s fair to say that because of the previous challenges around collaboration when mass transit was thought about before, it was often thought about in the context of the city of Leeds. That would never happen now and that’s not the way that it’s being considered but the historical legacy is that there wasn’t the frameworks through devolution or previous collaboration; so there wasn’t the same strategic approach to how to get people around the city region.
“That has moved on enormously in the last five years and that’s a very welcome development. Because in reality, if you’re making a pitch to government for a significant amount of money or retaining all the taxes paid here to pay for some of that infrastructure, then it’s much easier to make the argument for compelling economic Leeds City Region as the second biggest in the country that has significant tremendous work opportunities that can be capitalised upon.
“But the reality is that in the city region’s geography there’s a lot of work to do to. How you bring together across those traditional local government boundaries, getting people to work collaboratively – that can be devolution and that is the preferred model. But without that being there, I do think Ben [Still] and colleagues have done a very good job in putting together a compelling case that actually hasn’t relied on that infrastructure of devolution.
“From business perspective, we worry the government hasn’t seriously engaged with what the long-term needs.
“Those longer term funding streams that will allow you to invest in solutions that gives productivity increase – which you get from skills and from transport – you have to be able to plan and organise and you can’t do it overnight.”