Union Connectivity Review recommends UK-wide strategic trans

Hendy report calls on UK and devolved administrations to work collaboratively

Mark Moran

27 November 2021

The creation of a strategic United Kingdom transport network and collaborative working between the UK government and devolved administrations are key proposals in the final report of the Union Connectivity Review. The UK government asked Sir Peter Hendy CBE, chair of Network Rail, to undertake a detailed review into how transport connectivity across the UK can support economic growth and quality of life in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Sir Peter was also asked to make recommendations as to whether and how best to improve transport connectivity between the nations of the UK.

However, the report has met with a mixed response from the devolved administrations. The Welsh Government has welcomed the review and signalled a willingness to work on strategic connectivity issues. However, the Scottish Government have given the proposals a lukewarm response, pointing out transport is a devolved issue and saying it have not been actively engaged with.

And prime minister Boris Johnson’s proposal for a bridge or tunnel linking Scotland to Northern Ireland was rejected by a feasibility study as too expensive and fraught with potential difficulties. Recommendations in Sir Peter’s report include that the UK government should:

  • design and implement UKNET, a strategic transport network for the whole of the UK, and commit to providing additional funding to improve the network, in particular, the parts that are not performing well
  • plan improvements to the network using multimodal corridors, which should be reviewed regularly and appraised on a wider economic basis in order to support government objectives such as levelling up and net zero
  • support the development of sustainable aviation fuel plants in parts of the United Kingdom that are particularly reliant on aviation for domestic connectivity

Sir Peter Hendy, said: “My recommendations provide comprehensive, achievable and clear plans forward to better connect the whole of the United Kingdom, leading to more growth, jobs, housing and social cohesion. I welcome the enthusiasm shown by the prime minister and the government to my final report and I look forward to their formal response to my recommendations, which aim to spread opportunity and prosperity right across the United Kingdom.

“The UK government will now carefully consider the Union Connectivity Review’s recommendations in detail, working collaboratively with the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive to identify the solutions that work best for the people of the UK, and make tangible and meaningful progress as swiftly as possible.” The prime minister has particularly welcomed, and intends to accept, the proposal for the creation of UKNET, a strategic transport network spanning the entire United Kingdom. UKNET would assess and map out the key points across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom that are essential to stronger, more direct transport connections.

Boris Johnson said: “If we want to truly level up the country then it’s vital that we improve connectivity between all corners of the UK, making it easier for more people to get to more places more quickly. Sir Peter Hendy’s review is an inspiring vision for the future of transport, which we will now consider carefully. Determined to get to work right away, we will set up a strategic UK-wide transport network that can better serve the whole country with stronger sea, rail and road links – not only bringing us closer together but boosting jobs, prosperity and opportunity.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps added: “Transport is key to binding the family of nations that is the United Kingdom closer together so that prosperity can be shared more evenly. It is not good enough that certain areas of the UK thrive while others fall behind. We must realise our full national potential and that means mobilising the resources and skills of all parts of this country.

I am indebted to Sir Peter for his work. We will consider his recommendations carefully, engage closely with the devolved administrations, and work collegiately to ensure these proposals strengthen the ties that bind us, now and for the future.”

Connecting the nations

Specific recommendations include making improvements for connections across the United Kingdom include for improved connectivity with:

  • Scotland: proposals include reducing rail journey times and increasing capacity on the West Coast Main Line, and conducting an assessment of the East Coast road and rail corridor
  • Northern Ireland: upgrading the key A75 link to improve freight and passenger connectivity
  • Wales: improvements on the A55, M53 and M56, the South Wales Corridor, improvements to the North Wales Coast Main Line and rail links to the Midlands from Cardiff

The UK government has invited the devolved administrations to work collaboratively in defining and developing the necessary improvements to union connectivity, supported by specific projects, which will inform the UK government’s response. Scotland
The proposals for Scotland include upgrades to the West Coast Main Line, increasing capacity and cutting journey times between Scotland and London, the Midlands and North West England, which are key for both communities and businesses.

Another recommendation is for the UK and Scottish Governments to work together on developing an assessment of the East Coast road and rail transport corridor from North East England to South East Scotland, including improvements on the East Coast Main Line and the A1. It also includes offering the Scottish Government new funding to support the upgrade of the A75 making journeys between Northern Ireland and Great Britain quicker and easier. This would provide a major boost for jobs and further consolidate the UK government’s commitment to improving cross-border connectivity.

The review also encourages the Scottish Government to improve the A77 to support journeys between Belfast, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. There is also support for the development of sustainable aviation fuel plants in parts of the country that are particularly reliant on flights. The recommendation for a strategic transport network across the UK, has been welcomed by the prime minister.

Boris Johnson said: “With some of the busiest travel corridors for both passengers and freight, strengthening transport connections between Scotland and the rest of the UK is critical to maximise the potential for growth and jobs. Sir Peter Hendy’s review identifies key areas where we can boost rail, road and air links to better support Scottish businesses and communities, and we will work closely with the Scottish Government to take these proposals forward in ways that will bring our towns and cities even closer together.” Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “There have been times when the SNP government has not been engaging and has instructed officials not to engage with the review but we all live in the same United Kingdom and we all have friends and family and need to transport goods around so I don’t think it should be controversial to improve those links.”

However, the Scottish Government insists UK ministers have no say in investing in Scotland’s trunk roads. “Transport is devolved to Holyrood and the UK government should respect that,” a Scottish Government spokesperson told the BBC. The Scottish Government said it would seek to engage constructively on issues like cross-border rail, but insisted that UK ministers have no role in deciding investment in Scotland’s trunk roads. The spokesman added: “Scottish ministers have not been sighted on the recommendations of the Union Connectivity report, however if UK ministers really want to play a helpful role, then they could simply deliver the funding we need for such infrastructure investment in line with established budgetary mechanisms for Scotland to determine our spending priorities.”

The Scottish Government is to set out its transport priorities in February 2022 when the first phase of its Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 is due to be published. Wales
Sir Peter Hendy’s proposals for Wales include the UK government working with the Welsh Government to review the route connecting North Wales to the North West of England, which is a key link for both communities and businesses. He suggests that a package of improvements focused on this route should focus on better connectivity with HS2 and major electrification schemes, upgrades to the A55, the M53, M56, and improving onward travel to and from the island of Ireland, in a major boost for union connectivity.

Sir Peter has also advised the UK government to support measures to reduce congestion on the M4 and provide targeted improvements at the junction of the M4/M5. He also proposes upgrading and building new stations on the existing South Wales Main Line, in what would be a major infrastructure overhaul for transport in South Wales. He also recommends that the UK government develops a package of railway improvements to increase connectivity and reduce journey times between Cardiff, Birmingham and beyond, which could include better rolling stock, timetable changes and enhanced infrastructure.

Welsh secretary Simon Hart said: “Improving road, rail and other transport infrastructure so it is fit for the future is crucial to economic growth across Wales. Thousands of people travel between Wales and England every day so it is vital that we better connect our communities and increase opportunities for businesses and travellers.” The UK government has also invited the Welsh Government to work closely to identify the solutions which work best.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “We must strengthen the rail and road links across Wales if we are to truly level up the UK – enhancing the connectivity of Welsh towns and cities and bringing communities closer together. We will now reflect on Sir Peter Hendy’s review, and through close working with the Welsh Government, boost key transport connections that will deliver for the people and businesses of Wales and more evenly distribute opportunity and prosperity.” Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the Welsh Government had been involved in discussions ahead of the report’s release and both governments would work together to resolve issues around transport, such as congestion.

Shapps said: “Modern, rapid transport links between Wales and England are not just vital for economic growth and spreading opportunity across these two great nations. They will create the ties that bind our communities closer together, ensuring our investment works for everyone across the United Kingdom.” Responding to the report, Wales’ deputy minister for climate change and transport Lee Waters told the BBC: “The way that the transport system across the UK is working is dysfunctional, because the UK government has responsibility for the rail infrastructure but is not funding Wales, the funding is still going around London.

We are not getting our fair share, we’re not getting our share of HS2. This report is really welcome but now the UK government has to follow through.” Waters added: “We need to work together, this report now firmly endorses our actions around Newport, it turns away from the M4 and says public transport is the way ahead.

Now the UK has to help with the investment because they have responsibility for rail.” Another factor that has to be considered is that all new road building projects in Wales are being frozen while the Welsh Government conducts a review. Northern Ireland
In relation to Northern Ireland, Sir Peter Hendy Union Connectivity recommends upgrading the key A75 link to improve freight and passenger connectivity.

But a feasibility study of a bridge or tunnel from Northern Ireland to Scotland has concluded that it would be technically possible, but would cost a minimum of GBP209bn. The idea of a fixed link was proposed by prime minister Boris Johnson, who has a penchant for such projects. Sir Peter Hendy said such a link would have transformational economic effects.

However, he added that the costs would be impossible to justify. Therefore he said further work on the link should not progress beyond the feasibility study. “A bridge crossing, however, would be the longest span bridge built to date.

A tunnel would be the longest undersea tunnel ever built given the limited gradients on which trains can operate, the route it would need to take and the depths it would need to reach,” said Sir Peter. “For many decades, politicians and engineers have debated this proposal, but have done so without the evidence to show whether it was possible and, if so, what it would take to do it. This is the first comprehensive, conclusive study on the subject since the idea was first mooted over 150 years ago.” The fixed link report found either a bridge or tunnel would be at the very edge of what could be achieved with current technology.

Safety considerations mean that a tunnel crossing could only be constructed for railway use. A combination of tunnel and bridge incorporating artificial islands, as employed in Scandinavia and China, would not be possible due to the depth of the Irish Sea and other inhibiting factors. A major challenge is the Beaufort’s Dyke, a seabed trench that up to 300 metres deep and more than two miles wide at its broadest point, which is filled with million tonnes of dumped munitions at the end of World War One and during the 1970s.

The indicative cost estimate for the full route, including optimism bias, is GBP335bn for a bridge crossing and GBP209bn for a tunnel crossing. The study authors – Professor Douglas Oakervee CBE and Professor Gordon Masterton OBE – said the road and rail infrastructure required to connect a crossing to the main transport networks in Northern Ireland and Great Britain were, in themselves, major construction works. The planning, design, parliamentary and legal processes, and construction would take nearly 30 years before the crossing could become operational.

Reactions

Transport for the North
Tim Foster, Transport for the North’s interim director of strategy and programme, said: “We welcome the publication of this review and commend Sir Peter Hendy on the work he and his team have undertaken.

The final report reflects many of the key connectivity priorities TfN has proposed, including strengthened connectivity between the North of England, North Wales and Scotland. “We particularly welcome the proposals for a strategic approach planning and managing the transport network for the whole of the UK. We look forward to understanding more of the detail, including how sub-national transport Bodies like TfN can contribute to its development.

“We will consult our members on how the proposal of a ‘UKNET’ and how it will work for the interests of the North, but we welcome any suggestion that aims to improve capacity and connectivity across the North of England.” England’s Economic Heartland
Cllr Richard Wenham, chair of England’s Economic Heartland, said: “We welcome recognition of the economic contribution of the towns and cities within the Fast Growth Cities Group, five of which – Peterborough, Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford and Swindon – are in the Heartland. The sixth, Norwich, is a key link to the east of the region.

It reflects the Heartland’s role as net contributor to the economy and, moreover, our potential to further contribute to the UK as a whole. “East West Rail between Oxford and Cambridge, and the wider ambition to use this to create an ‘East West Main Line’ from Norwich and Ipswich through to Swindon, Bristol and South Wales, will transform connectivity between all these places, unlocking new opportunities for economic growth and playing a key role in the UK strategic transport network.” Rail Delivery Group
Andy Bagnall, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Improvements to cross-border rail services are a vote of confidence in the role train travel will play as a quick, easy and green way to get around the country.

“To maximise the benefits of the proposed improvements and get more people taking the train to travel across Britain, government should make long-distance rail fares simpler and limit the Air Passenger Duty (APD) cut to routes where a journey cannot be made by train in less than five hours.” Logistics UK
Elizabeth de Jong, director of Policy at Logistics UK, said: “With effective and efficient transport connectivity between the nations vital to support trade and the UK economy, Logistics UK welcomes the infrastructure improvements recommended in the review, including UKNET, a strategic transport network that would span the UK, and the A75 upgrade. The A75 in Scotland is a key trading route linking Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but the road has been in need of investment for many years.

Logistics UK will now be examining the implications of the Union Connectivity Review recommendations in more depth and working with UK government, devolved administrations, and members to ensure the best outcomes for the logistics industry.” Confederation of British Industry
Matthew Fell, CBI chief policy director, said: “Better transport connectivity between the four nations is crucial to create a more joined up and prosperous UK. “The landmark Union Connectivity Review has made some important recommendations which will help deliver a modern, integrated transport network.

The creation of UKNET, offering strategic oversight to the whole transport network, along with multi-modal corridors and efforts to turn the UK into a sustainable aviation fuel powerhouse, will be particularly welcomed by business. “Strong collaboration between the UK and devolved governments will be vital to making this vision a reality.” British Chambers of Commerce
Jane Gratton, head of people policy at the BCC, said: “Businesses continually operate between all four nations of the United Kingdom and an effective strategic transport network is critical to that.  If we want to improve productivity, boost trade, and continue to make progress towards net zero, then the UK’s entire transport system must be fit for purpose and properly integrated.

“Following recent U-turns on high-speed rail investment, businesses will be keen to see how the recommendations in this review deal with the need for increased capacity across the network, for both passengers and freight, and keep high speed rail, including the missing sections of HS2, alive as future options. “Businesses are waiting for meaningful proposals and solid investment that will drive growth and prosperity in every part of the UK.”

Union Connectivity Review

A summary of Sir Peter Hendy CBE’s recommendations The UK government should:
1 Design and implement UKNET – a strategic transport network for the whole of the United Kingdom, and commit funding to improve the network, in particular, the parts that are not performing well
2 Plan improvements to the network using multimodal corridors, which should be reviewed regularly and appraised on a wider economic basis in order to support government objectives such as levelling up and net zero
3 Gather data on a UK wide basis to support decision making relating to the network.

To support improved connectivity to, from and via Scotland, the UK government should:
4 Reduce rail journey times and increase rail capacity between Scotland and London, the Midlands and North West England by upgrading the West Coast Main Line north of Crewe and reviewing options for alternative northerly connections between HS2 and the West Coast Main Line
5 Seek to work with the Scottish Government to develop an assessment of the East Coast road and rail transport corridor from North East England to South East Scotland, including improvements on the East Coast Main Line and the A1
6 Offer funding to support the upgrade of the A75 to improve journeys between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. To support improved connectivity to, from and via Wales, the UK government should:
7 Work with the Welsh Government to undertake a multimodal review of the North Wales transport corridor, and develop a package of improvements focused on the North Wales Main Line (including better connectivity with HS2, and electrification), the A55, the M53, M56, and onward travel to and from the island of Ireland
8 Recognise the urgent need to reduce congestion on the M4 and adopt a multi modal approach to the South Wales corridor by upgrading and building new stations on the existing South Wales Main Line, supporting the Welsh Government’s package of public transport improvements and removing bottlenecks through targeted improvements at the junction of the M4/M5 to relieve congestion
9 Develop a package of railway improvements to increase connectivity and reduce journey times between Cardiff, Birmingham and beyond, which could include better rolling stock, timetable changes and enhanced infrastructure. To support improved connectivity to and from Northern Ireland, the UK government should:
10 Support the Northern Ireland Executive to develop, fund and implement a long term pipeline of improvements to transport infrastructure
11 Agree with the Northern Ireland Executive a plan and funding to upgrade the railway on the Northern Ireland corridor, including better connectivity to the three airports and seaports, and to and from Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, and examine the potential to reopen closed lines
12 Provide funding and major project expertise to the Northern Ireland Executive to support their work with the Republic of Ireland relating to the All Island Strategic Rail Review and its implementation, including connectivity between Belfast and Dublin, between Derry/Londonderry and North West Ireland, and to and from the three airports and the seaports

Where journeys are too long to be reasonably taken by road or rail, the UK government should:
13 Revise existing subsidy rules for domestic aviation to allow support for routes between different regions of the UK (rather than just to and from London) and to allow multiple airlines to serve a single route;
14 Reduce the rate of domestic aviation tax
15 Intervene in the assignment of slots at London airports to provide more slots for domestic routes.

The UK government should:
16 Drive the uptake of sustainable fuels and zero emission technologies on domestic aviation through a combination of incentives, tax benefits and subsidies to make the UK a world leader in developing these fuels and technologies
17 Support the development of sustainable aviation fuel plants in parts of the United Kingdom that are particularly reliant on aviation for domestic connectivity
18 Improve connectivity to seaports across the United Kingdom by enhancing rail freight connections and maximise the potential of freeports by investing in improved connectivity to and from these economic hubs
19 Maintain high environmental standards on UKNET such as the provision of electric vehicle chargepoints, the protection of the natural environment and integration with local active travel schemes and sustainable local transport options.