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How the Heartlands will bounce back, with England’s Economic Heartland’s Martin Tugwell

9 min

Prior to the national lockdown in March, England’s heartlands counties were transforming at a rapid pace. Now, armed with a new Draft Transport Strategy harnessing the potential of East West Rail and other major developments in the promising region, England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) believes it is a major player in the national Coronavirus recovery strategy. Quadrant Transport sits down with Martin Tugwell, programme director, to find out more

Tell us a little about the work of yourself and EEH since the lockdown in March!

MT: I am Martin Tugwell, I am programme director for EEH – one of seven sub-national transport bodies across England. We have been in existence for coming on six years now. In recent months, the focus has been on getting ready the Draft Strategy Publication. This is quite a milestone for us: it is the culmination of 18 months to two years to develop the draft transport strategy. It is the opportunity for people now to reflect on and comment on the draft over the next three months.

The focus for the draft strategy has been about how do we realise the economic potential of the region? And do that in a way that delivers on net environmental gain. It’s those twin objectives, and we need to achieve both of them. As a region, we stretch from Swindon in the west, all the way across the Cambridgeshire; and from Northampton down to Hertfordshire, so just over 5 million people.

Martin Tugwell, programme director, England’s Economic Heartland

It is a very successful region, one of the most successful regions in the country. We are a net contributor to the UK Exchequer – full of science and tech-based innovation. So if you think about some of the economic offer we have: you have world-class life sciences, you’ve got advanced manufacturing, not just because of Formula 1 and Formula E, but more generally we have high value-added world leading space technology systems, digital creative sectors – so it’s all very high value, high energy 21st century economies.

Whilst that success is great – you can’t take it for granted. We still need to invest in infrastructure. What we’ve seen through the work on developing the transport strategy is this emphasis on doing things differently.

So, we do see the Draft Transport Strategy as being an opportunity for a step-change, moving away from just thinking about how do we connect people physically: walking, cycling, cars, public transport, to how we connect people to opportunities and services.

What we’ve seen in the last few months is a growth and acceleration in the use of e-commerce, and an acceleration in the use of remote and flexible working – which is all good stuff, because it keeps the economy going, and it does it in a different way. But what it does mean is that there are different things happening in terms of what the implications are for the transport.

One of the things that we’ve done as well in this is we’ve looked at how a driver hears about achieving the net-zero carbon requirement. It’s not a target. We’ve got a requirement now in this country to achieve net-zero carbon by no later than 2050. And when we did an earlier round of engagement with the communities, people are keen for us to be ambitious in trying to better that target.

It is no good in saying ‘we’re going to electrify the transport system’, if you don’t coordinate the investment you’re doing in transport

So one of the things we’ve done alongside the Draft Transport Strategy itself is that we’ve published some technical studies. One of which is looking at pathways to decarbonisation, which uses the national infrastructure model that’s been done by Oxford University and Southampton University. And what that shows is you need to both be investing in change of the transport system, but also investing in crucial infrastructure, and you also need to be investing in energy systems.

Because it is no good in saying ‘we’re going to electrify the transport system’, if you don’t coordinate the investment you’re doing in transport, with the investment in energy supplies, so that you get the energy generation and distribution to where people need it.

As I said, we think it’s a step change. We think it’s about challenging some of the way forward. And we think it’s an ambition for the region that’s achievable and deliverable.

Martin Tugwell will be a keynote speaker at Peloton’s Bouncing Back 2020 seminar, taking place on 11 August at 09.30am. Click here to register for free!

Clearly one of the flagship projects as part of the strategy is East West Rail (EWR): what’s the latest on that project?

MT: Here we’re differentiating from the rail project that’s underway at the moment from the long-term ambition. What we’re delivering at the moment is a really good step – but at the longer term, we want East West Rail to be a main line in its own right, rather than just a rail project. It cuts across and creates so many opportunities. And it is also worth remembering that EWR as a consortium – the local parties and businesses – have always seen it as being something that connects Oxford all the way across to Cambridge, and indeed through Cambridge and into Norwich and Ipswich.

Where we are is, in terms of the next stage, which would see services reintroduced between Bicester and Bletchley/Milton Keynes and also down to Aylesbury and across the Bedford. We’ve had the outcome of the Transport and Works Act application earlier this year. We’re now looking for and waiting for final confirmation of the funding to deliver that.

It’s not just about investing in a rail link because it’s a good thing to do: it’s the things that it unlocks and how it enables it to happen

[The funding is] imminent, we’re told. So, we’re already seeing some works on the ground, and there’s been environmental mitigation. If you go to Bletchley, you’ll see that the viaduct across the WCML is gradually being taken down – that’s part of the work associated with the work that is on the critical path of the route. It’s being taken forward now, but the final confirmation of the funding will be coming very soon, we believe.

Hearltands map of rail routes in the region: East West Rail route (blue line) highlights opportunities for connectivity with the rest of the UK c. England’s Economic Heartland

On the section between Bedford and Cambridge, the EWR Company, which is a company set up by the Secretary of State to help deliver and set up the delivery of the scheme, undertook a consultation on the preferred route last year. There is a preferred route: they’re doing some further work, and working with us as partners, both as a region and individually, to develop their thinking – and I would hope we would see some further engagement on what happens between Bedford and Cambridge later this year.

The commitment from government remains; this is something they want to get delivered. We understand it is something that is often talked about. When you talk about project speeds, and how do you accelerate the development and delivery of schemes, this is the kind of project they’re talking about.

But in terms of the transport strategy, this is overwhelmingly the transformational project – but it’s worth emphasising this isn’t just because it connects Oxford and Cambridge. In conjunction with HS2, it allows us to do things about North-South connectivity – so how do we use the West Coast Main Line, how do we connect down to Aylesbury, High Wycombe down to Old Oak Common.

If you think about where EWR crosses over each of the main lines, whether it’s the ECML, whether it’s Bedford on The Midlands, whether it’s Milton Keynes or Bletchley on the West Coast, Aylesbury on Chiltern, Oxford in the Cross-Country routes, there are interchange opportunities here – and that’s what the transport strategy again emphasises. It’s not just about investing in a rail link because it’s a good thing to do: it’s the things that it unlocks and how it enables it to happen.

Outside of EWR, what are the biggest ‘wins’ you would highlight to decision-makers that the heartlands can do to help the UK bounce back?

MT: If we’re going to deliver that economic objective, and do it in a way that delivers net environmental benefit, we’ve got to do things differently: and that means investment. In the region we’ve got the technology and the innovation to actually do things very differently. And so actually, if we harness the innovation that exists within the region, we can create new solutions, we can deliver different ways of doing things.

c. Rebecca Lindskoog, Unsplash

So not only would we unlock the economic potential, we would actually do it in a way that would support the 21st Century green economic recovery. So, to our mind, it’s a bit of a win-win.

Of course, that then means that we need to, as I said earlier, look at how we think about what the transport needs are moving forward, as well as investing alongside digital and energy. So, you have a strategy which is a step-change, which builds upon and supports the changes we’re seeing in the way people travel and way people work; it harnesses technology and innovation we’ve got, and we genuinely believe it’s an opportunity to shape the future in perhaps the way we haven’t done it before.

So, invest in us. Invest in economic recovery that is green – and invest in us in a recovery that’s going to deliver on the requirement to meet our net-zero targets.