10th March, 2021

GK reactions: Union Connectivity Review

Sir Peter Hendy’s interim Union Connectivity review was published today (10th March). The Review was launched in October 2020 to consider transport connectivity across the United Kingdom and to identify a series of recommendations that will support the Government’s strategic ambitions. Hendy’s final recommendations are expected in the Summer.

Despite being an independent review, the highly political mandate from Government is evident even in this initial iteration. From ‘levelling up’ to the environmental agenda and the future of the Union, the Review is shaping up to be the latest in a long line of reports which elucidate the Johnson administration’s post-COVID, post-Brexit vision for the UK. Hendy appears highly conscious of his work’s position in the greater scheme of things – citing the recent Integrated Rail Plan, the Regional Air Connectivity Review and the upcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan as parallel and interdependent pieces of work.

As the name suggests, where the Union Connectivity Review is most additive is on the question of how transport links could better operate between nations of the UK. The headline proposal is for a new ‘pan-UK’ strategic transport network to work alongside the existing strategic networks of each nation. This would not alter the operational responsibilities of Highways England, Transport Scotland and others, but would complement them with cross border strategies and assessments.

The final Review will provide an assessment of the ongoing costs of such a network, including preliminary costing and timescales for the proposed fixed link between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.

Only at subsequent budgetary events – most notably the anticipated 2021 Spending Review – will we see how the Government’s priorities fall between cross-border connectivity and other transport projects, including the flagship HS2 project. From a political perspective a Conservative government might assess that apart from diluting the pro-independence feeling in Scotland, there is more to be gained from shoring up their voter-base in the Midlands and the North, than from creating better cross-border links.

On top of the political considerations, there is growing talk of unease from the Treasury about the level of investment chalked up for transport projects versus digital infrastructure – the so-called ‘steel versus fibre’ debate. This rift is one reason given for the continued delay to DfT’s publication of the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline, which is hotly anticipated by the sector.

If these strands of thought prevail, a new pan-UK strategic transport network could end up far more strategy than substance.