Currently, too many decisions about local transport are taken in Whitehall and the way local transport is funded outside London is complex, inefficient and unwieldy.
A new deal is needed between national and local government on transport where the Department for Transport sets national policy and overall goals for local transport (such as safer cycling, smart ticketing, and value for money) and devolves power and funds to enable these policies to be implemented on the ground.
On Wednesday, the Labour party set out plans to promote economic growth in English cities, accepting recommendations made by former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis. The principles of Lord Adonis’s Growth Review are welcome, as the report proposes measures attempting to empower city and county regions to boost growth around the country. But it lacks detailed commitment to investment to ensure the services most regions still need. As we approach next year’s General Election, we’re keen to hear how all of the political parties plan to support transport that’s sustainable for communities and our environments.
Echoing Lord Heseltine’s devolution review, the Adonis Review attempts to be a hard-hitting proposal for real distribution of economic power to cities and counties outside London. Adonis’s challenge is to strengthen local economies and infrastructure so it’s not only London that benefits from new jobs, improved public transport and various other innovations.
The Review advocates joined up infrastructure planning – both geographically, bringing Local Authorities together as Combined Authorities, and structurally, with Combined Authorities considering transport in relation to housing and employment, for example.
In Adonis’s vision, strengthened Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) that reflect the boundaries of Combined Authorities will get increased resources to encourage projects across the area.
As we have commented elsewhere, enabling local authorities to work together is valuable, especially since around 50 per cent nowadays live and work in separate local authorities, as Adonis notes. London and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority offer good examples of public transport development made possible by this approach.
Adonis proposes devolving £6 billion per year for housing, transport, welfare and infrastructure, and Labour have taken this up, although committing rather to £30 billion over the life of the next Parliament. While this principle is welcome, we must be assured that extra funds locally will enable city and county regions to support developments that we know benefit people, such as the shared ticketing schemes and travel planning that the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) is enabling with success in many regions. Not to mention the need to redress the huge disparity between spending on public transport in London and the Southeast, where £545 was spent per head in 2012-13, and in regions in the north of England, where spending was on average £241.*
But some key commitments and details are so far missing which all of the parties must address in their manifestos.
Much local funding is still being directed towards car-based development rather than more sustainable projects with proven benefits, as our analysis of the bids submitted by LEPs for the Government’s £2bn Local Growth Fund so far shows - although there has been encouraging progress over time as the advantages of and options for public transport measures are communicated to LEPs and local authorities.
The next Government must consolidate currently separate funding flows for transport: put local authorities more in control and deliver outcomes that could provide alternatives to car travel. Funds for vital services such as buses should be ring fenced, to ensure that people in need are not cut off from their communities. And crucially, local structures must be transparent and able to benefit from stakeholder and public involvement in setting and delivering transport priorities. A business-led approach must be opened up to achieve the objectives on prosperity, health and environment that really benefit people.
There will be great challenges for the next Government, and a party that gains support across the country will need to show how they will spread economic growth throughout the UK, improve our local environments and keep the cost of living down.
Labour’s announcements in response to Lord Adonis’s report so far don’t include clear direct support for sustainable transport. Questions remain such as what they plan to do with 2015’s rail franchise renewals, how they will develop the LSTF to continue its positive impacts, and just how they will ensure the blanket devolution of £30 billion is invested to make real impacts on living standards in our communities. As Adonis says, it’s not just about ‘big numbers’ but about schools, firms and cities – real places.