Delivering better transport means delivering on devolution, says Caroline Green - senior policy consultant, working on transport policy at the Local Government Association
Transport is one of the fundamental cornerstones in tackling the global, national and local challenges we face. People need transport to access the services, jobs, recreation and leisure opportunities that make for a good quality of life. Reducing carbon emissions from transport is at the heart of tackling climate change and building sustainable communities for the future.
One of the biggest issues for those areas facing the prospect of one of the government’s eco-towns is how they will avoid simply becoming dormitory towns for existing towns with 20,000 carbon neutral homes, but a 4x4 in every driveway? Congestion will cost this country £25 bn a year by 2020 and the costs of fuel is still on the up.
Integrated transport systems
If we are to meet these challenges, we need a very different approach to transport. It is councils’ business to understand the way travel and transport works and how it can support the local economy, housing growth and employment that are at the heart of thriving local economies. This isn’t just about making sure the roads are maintained or that there is enough parking. We need properly integrated local transport systems that join up all the different elements of transport to benefit the local economy, the environment and provide better access to services.
This requires local solutions. There is no one-size fits all and what works for Manchester will not work for Nottingham. The right solutions will follow from an understanding of the way journey patterns work; where the jobs and houses are, or are planned for; where pinch points are in a local transport context; and of the types of services that people want and need. Councils need a stronger set of tools and levers to influence transport across all modes in order to deliver integrated solutions to transport challenges.
Councils need to be able to exercise strong local leadership in working with private sector transport providers. The bus is the main form of public transport in the UK. Nationally, we spend £2.5 bn of public money per year to support bus services, yet outside London, councils have little say in what services are provided. Bus operators are free to provide whatever services they like, charge whatever fares they like and use whatever vehicles they choose. This needs to change if we are to get value for money in return for public investment and provide the stability, reliability and affordability that is needed to turn around decades of declining bus use.
Local transport bill
Just over a year ago, commentators in local government were excited about “the moment of opportunity for change” promised by the Local Transport Bill. The draft Bill looked as if it would deliver on the promise to give local authorities more control over local bus services. The idea was to give them a stronger influence over the frequency, timings and fares of bus services, and to give the option of Quality Contracts – the ability to specify and tender for a contract to deliver the services that people need and want (as already happens in London) rather than one which suits the shareholders of the major bus operating companies. These powers have existed in theory since the Transport Act 2000, but the barriers were set so high that no local authority has been able to use them.
Government has acknowledged that reform is needed. It wants to see councils in major urban areas use these powers. And yet, a year on there are big concerns among local transport authorities that the Bill, now in it’s final stages of the Parliamentary process, will fail to deliver tools that they can use because of hoops and hurdles that they will have to go through in order to exercise the powers. If Government is truly going to deliver on its promise to “empower local authorities to take steps to meet transport needs in the light of local circumstance”, it needs to have the courage of its conviction and really let councils take the decisions.
Government is also looking at how it can devolve planning decisions over many transport schemes to the local and sub-regional level. This reflects a new agreement between central and local government that as far as possible, decisions should be taken at the level on which they have the major impact. Clearly, there are some schemes – construction of a new motorway for example – that impact on the national strategic road network. It is appropriate that such decisions should be decided at the national level, but many major road schemes are more local, or sub regional in their impact. Government says it wants to empower councils, working together in partnership where appropriate to take the decisions over these projects. And yet, as currently drafted, the Planning Bill also going through parliament means that many of these decisions will actually be taken by the new centrally appointed Infrastructure Planning Commission.
Delivering efficient transport networks will require a new set of relationships. Councils need to be able to work more effectively with private transport providers to deliver improved services. Local authorities also need new, stronger partnerships with each other so that they can take challenging decisions across their boundaries. But this is dependent on another new set of relationships between central and local government – one in which central government sticks to its resolve and gives local authorities powers that they need to exercise strong local leadership to deliver better transport networks.