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The Policy Ask with Martin Tugwell: “Free public transport could deliver economic, environmental and social benefits”

Transport for the North’s chief executive on devolution, infrastructure delivery, and his role in the Olympic opening ceremony.

By Spotlight

Martin Tugwell is chief executive of Transport for the North (TfN), a statutory body bringing together the north of England’s 20 local transport authorities along with Network Rail, National Highways and HS2. TfN works with the UK government to develop strategic transport initiatives across the north. Before taking up this role, Tugwell worked on the South East England Regional Assembly, Oxfordshire County Council and the Transport Systems Catapult. He is a chartered engineer and a fellow of the Institute for Civil Engineers.

How do you start your working day?   

I’m an early riser, a legacy of my teenage years as a paper boy. I like how each new day starts with a sense of anticipation, a blank canvas upon which to draw. A short walk in the morning before breakfast enables me to grab a coffee and to take stock before firing up the laptop to start the work day.

What has been your career high?

Preparing the first statutory regional transport strategy for the south-east of England and seeing it adopted was a particular highlight. I used this to make the case for an indicative funding allocation, the pilot of which helped to establish the case for regional funding advice. That this unlocked delivery of the A3 Hindhead Tunnel served to demonstrate that empowering regional leaders brought about tangible benefits. However, being a cast member for the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony will never be surpassed.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?   

Having spent ten years at the South East England Regional Assembly developing the technical capacity and capability that underpinned the work of regional assemblies and regional development agencies, standing up in front of the team to tell them that our time was up was hard on both a professional and personal level. Seeing years of technical work being literally consigned to the skip, tossed aside without a thought as to how it might be used, was a real low point.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Keep asking questions and challenging received wisdom. While it’s important to ground solutions in our understanding of the here and now, history shows us that transformation comes from an ability to paint a picture of the future that inspires and motivates. And focus on ensuring that solutions are outcome-focused, place-based and user-centred: in this way it is possible to harness professional creativity to the benefit of our residents, businesses and communities.

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[See also: Keir Starmer needs to privatise the railways]

Which political figure inspires you?

President John F Kennedy: he inspired not just a generation but an entire country to dare to dream of what might be, to reach for the stars and come together in a shared endeavour. Kennedy’s ability to communicate empowered the individual and enabled huge technological strides to be made in a very short period by bringing people together in common cause. Some 60 years on, his inauguration speech remains an inspiration.

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What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

Devolving powers from Westminster is bringing real added value. Empowering locally elected politicians to provide leadership for their communities brings about benefits nationally and locally. Providing multi-year funding settlements enables elected leaders to plan with greater certainty, avoids the waste and inertia that comes with the plethora of funding competitions run by Westminster, and enables a different conversation to be had with the private sector.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?   

The over-use of competitive funding processes consumes scarce resources, adds inertia to the system, and ignores the reality that successful places require a coordinated approach to investment. The progress with devolution creates the opportunity to simplify Westminster processes further, without challenging its accountability. It will enable joined-up thinking that is genuinely place-based and user-centred, and ultimately it will accelerate delivery of important projects.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The commitment of the government to take forward legislation for Great British Railways is welcome recognition of the need for reform across the rail sector. Rediscovering the importance of considering revenues alongside costs is essential to enable the growth in the rail sector that is needed to meet wider economic, environmental and social outcomes. Building on existing devolution – such as what is already in place in the north – will be central to empowering the innovation that will deliver that growth.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from? 

The introduction of free at the point of use public transport in Luxembourg demonstrates that the funding of such services should not be viewed as a subsidy but rather as an investment in delivering wider economic, environmental and social outcomes. It reminds us that breaking down funding silos remains one of the key challenges facing the UK, and that devolution represents an opportunity to embed a paradigm that is focused on achieving outcomes that are place-based and user-centred.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

Extending the scope of sub-national transport bodies so that they are sub-national infrastructure bodies, with a remit that reflects and complements the one held by the National Infrastructure Commission, and with the requirement to provide advice to government within an indicative five-year funding envelope. Transport is a catalyst for change, so we need complementary policy support and investment in education, health, housing, energy, healthcare and other key sectors to fully realise the economic, social and environmental opportunities.

[Read more: Transport is the core of levelling up]