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Budget 2021 Special: Keeping us on route to a sustainable transport future

Paul Tuohy's picture

Transport is essential to the country’s economic recovery post-Covid and to a cleaner, fairer future. The Chancellor has an opportunity in the forthcoming Budget to ensure communities have access to the public transport services they need both now and after the pandemic, as well as putting in place measures which will create a long-term shift to sustainable transport and away from a car-based recovery. 

The current Government message to avoid all but essential travel means public transport use is suppressed, but it is important for the Treasury to continue providing emergency funding for public transport operations. To avoid a wasteful use of public funds, operations do need to be scaled back, but the Chancellor must ensure that these measures are as short-term as possible and restored once restrictions are eased. It is crucial not to allow train lines or bus services to close completely based on a temporary lack of passengers.

Equally the forthcoming National Bus Strategy must outline a vision for the renewal of local bus services after the pandemic, as well as a reformed funding landscape. Bus funding should be combined into a single, ringfenced, multi-year framework covering revenue and capital support from taxpayer funds to local authorities. Funding for local transport should be ringfenced and channelled through local authorities, with revenue support reformed to deliver specific benefits against desired outcomes, such as increasing bus use, ensuring socially necessary services that are critical to communities are in place, and a move towards zero emissions. 

The reduction in the rail enhancements budget following the Spending Review was regrettable, especially with a new, more ambitious, target for reducing carbon by 2030. Electrifying rail and connecting more communities to the network should play a crucial role in achieving this ambition and the Chancellor should safeguard this funding to ensure that essential upgrades and capacity improvements can go ahead. In parallel to this, the Treasury should review Network Rail’s investment strategy and project delivery processes to ensure that future investments are cost effective and deliver the best possible taxpayer value for money.

Despite lots of warm words, actual progress on reinstating rail lines and stations has been very slow. The Department for Transport’s Acceleration Unit should examine how investment in new rail capacity and connections - including re-establishing passenger services on closed sections of the railway and developing new stations to serve communities not currently connected to the railway - can be speeded up.

To help public transport complete on a more equal footing with the private car, we need better infrastructure to make public transport journeys quicker and easier. The Treasury should prioritise a programme of investment in physical and digital infrastructure to support public transport, including adequate funding for local authorities to invest in a new generation of modal interchanges, bus priority measures, urban traffic control, bus waiting facilities and bus stations. 

The Government has laid out ambitious plans for green growth and levelling up local economies, neither of which should be diluted or set back by the current crisis. By investing in public transport and sustainable transport infrastructure now, the Government can ensure that once the present health emergency is over, we are still firmly on the path to a more sustainable transport future.

Read our Budget 2021 submission to the Treasury in full.