Budget 2021: Five key takeaways for urban transport

1. The one year 2020 Spending Review, and the multi-year 2021 Spending Review, are more significant for urban transport than the Budget was likely to be – and indeed, proved to be. Also, between now and the 2021 Spending Review, we will have the bus strategy, and, if the road map to COVID-19 recovery works out, the Government will need to take some decisions on how it will fill the patronage/funding gap that COVID-19 will still leave behind. So plenty still to play for.

However, although public spending wasn’t the main focus of the Budget, it did put more flesh on the bones of the new funding streams that were announced in the 2020 Spending Review – perhaps most notably on the Levelling Up Fund. It also showed that the political dimension to funding choices, that are always implicit, are becoming more explicit through more ranking of areas to be prioritised and the greater involvement of local MPs.

2. Glass half empty? The Resolution Foundation analysis is that the Budget has further sharpened the axe which hangs over non-protected Government departments. They say: ‘Further planned cuts to public services spending will see budgets for unprotected departments (such as transport and local government) fall by £2.6bn next year (2022-23). And that by 2024-25, day to day public service spending per capita in unprotected departments will still be almost one-quarter lower than in 2009-10, with less than a fifth of the reduction in spending between 2009-10 and 2018-19 having been unwound. These spending cuts assume no further spending pressures elsewhere, which is highly unlikely given what’s in store for the NHS, schools and social care over the coming years.’

This is a particular concern in relation to the revenue support that public transport needs to recover, never mind, build its often low share of the trips that people make. It also has implications for the already denuded capacity of local transport authorities to retain and develop the skills and capacity they need to deliver capital investment and meet the increasingly complex environmental and social challenges that cities face.

3. Glass half full? Most of the extra £5bn promised for bus and active travel that the Prime Minister pledged in February 2020, is still to come. If you add in the existing Transforming Cities Fund and the new funds on their way, then potentially there could be significant capital funding on its way to spend on the right things on urban transport (public transport and active travel). Plus, few could argue that post industrial towns are not overdue an investment boost.

4. Meanwhile there’s a danger of a swing back to greater centralisation of decision-making with the risk that the Intra-city Transport Fund in particular becomes a tool by which HMT can manage the priorities of city regions which should be left to determine their own futures. More widely, the Budget reinforced the trend of recent years away from block funding towards places having to please and convince terribly clever people in London about the merits of their bids into multiple competitive funding pots.

5. One day a Chancellor is going to have to grasp the nettle of significant road vehicle taxation reform – not least because of the rise of electric vehicles. But yesterday wasn’t that day. The fuel duty escalator remains frozen. This further undermines both public transport’s competitive position and the slow progress being made to reduce transport’s drag on wider Government carbon reduction targets. But it could be that as the pandemic recedes, that 2021 is the year when more kites are flown around how a new and more progressive fiscal and charging regime for road vehicles could also fill the revenue gap that the electrification of vehicle fleets will cause in the current system.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Journey into a locked-down world

(Picture: Empty platforms at Leeds station at rush hour during the first national lockdown in March 2020)

Like many others, my daily bus commute came to an abrupt end in March 2020. In the months since, my only real life experience of public transport in a COVID world was a couple of open-top bus trips up and down Great Yarmouth seafront in the brief respite of August 2020.  

That changed last week when I made the trip down south for the funeral of my Grandma. With numbers of mourners restricted, and wanting to minimise the risks involved, I travelled alone, meaning a journey on a train for the first time in over a year.  

Whilst expecting Leeds Station to be quiet, it was still a shock to see it so devoid of people, with passengers outnumbered by staff and contractors in hi-vis jackets working on the upgrades to the station. Signs reminding people to stay at home and save lives added to the somewhat dystopian feel and the oddness of being out in the world. 

I was surprised by how nervous I felt – like I had forgotten how to ‘do’ train travel – clumsily presenting my QR code as I passed through the ticket barriers and scanning the waiting LNER train, searching for the correct carriage and temporarily forgetting which order the alphabet runs in.  

Finding my seat, the carriage appeared empty, but the occasional rustle of a newspaper told me I was not alone. The space for seat reservation cards in the backs of the seats was now used to remind passengers that reservations were essential and that they should sit in their allocated seat only, to ensure social distancing.  

Posters and audio announcements reminded passengers that face coverings were required at all times unless exempt. I guiltily removed mine to eat my lunch and drink my tea, trying to bolt everything down as quickly as possible, feeling embarrassed to be ‘unmasked’ and feeling for those who are exempt and routinely run the gauntlet of the public gaze and judgement.  

The journey progressed smoothly, and the cleaning regime was reassuringly visible. Cleaning staff dressed in black, looking like members of a SWAT team strode the carriages, spraying everything in sight. Switching onto a local Thameslink service, again the cleaning team were working hard to keep every surface as safe and sanitised as possible. Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was eerily accurate when he imagined the demise of a planet which decided to send its telephone sanitisers and other seemingly unimportant workers off on an Ark into space. Those left behind were subsequently wiped out by a disease contracted from a dirty telephone. Cleaners are heroes. 

Arriving safely at my destination, despite the sad reason for my journey, it was absolutely wonderful to see my family (however briefly) after so long apart. 

(Picture: A near empty carriage on Rebecca’s journey)

The journey back to Leeds was less straightforward. I had somehow managed to book myself onto a Thameslink service that didn’t exist, meaning I would miss my LNER connection and lose my all-important reservation. Stressful at the best of times, but the context of COVID added a new level of anxiety. Would I be allowed on a different train, what about my reservation?  

The member of staff at the customer service desk seemed harassed and off-hand. He was unable to secure me a reservation and, scrawling my permission to travel on a tear-off sheet, sent me on the next north-bound LNER service with no advice as to my onward journey or where I should change. The train manager seemed equally stretched making me wonder whether staff are being pushed to breaking point by the pressures of keeping themselves and others safe and moving in a pandemic.  

In contrast, the member of catering crew (the first person I encountered on boarding the train), was kind and compassionate as – seeking reassurance – I felt the need to explain to him why I was sitting in a seat for which I had no reservation and my worries as to where I should alight for the next stage of my journey. He sat down, listened carefully and messaged the train manager, even offering to arrange me a reservation in advance of the next leg of my trip. A little kindness and understanding goes a long way, especially in these anxious, edgy times. And he made a fantastic bacon roll. 

Finally, I arrived back in Leeds, walking through the city centre to catch the bus home for the final leg of the journey. The city centre looked tired and unloved. With shuttered shops and windows frozen in time, still dressed in their Christmas finery, it was far from the buzzing city that I know and love. 

My bus, in normal times, would be pretty full throughout the day. This Friday lunchtime, there were three people downstairs and about five upstairs. I know that buses are cleaner than they have ever been and that companies are working hard to keep them as safe as they possibly can be.  

What you can’t account for is the unpredictability of us humans. It made for a somewhat worrying journey as one of my fellow passengers, talking away to himself, moved from seat to seat, taking his mask on and off as well as closing the windows that had been left open for the ventilation that is so important for reducing transmission. It highlighted to me the role that the bus plays, not just in transporting key workers during a pandemic, but also as the only travel option for some of the most vulnerable people in society, many of whom are likely to be isolated and cut off from their normal routines and support.  

My journey into the locked-down world was at times tense and nerve wracking. However, the things that matter are magnified but largely unchanged.  

Kind words, a friendly greeting, smiling eyes mean so much in a sea of masked faces.  

Seeing tangible evidence of enhanced cleaning regimes bolsters confidence and we should treasure the armies of staff that are responsible for delivering this. 

Clear information and good communication when a journey is disrupted will always do a lot to dispel anxiety and maintain goodwill. 

It all boils down to kindness and reassurance, both of which will be needed in spades as we begin to emerge, blinking into the light, from what we all hope will be the last lockdown. Happy trails everyone. 

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group 

Why we need a new deal on urban transport – both during the pandemic and beyond

The roadmap of the release from COVID-19 restrictions was as cautious as was predicted for the early stages but perhaps more ambitious than was expected on the end game – with June 21st potentially seeing the end of all restrictions on journey purpose and on social distancing. It’s good to now have the playbook for the nation’s recovery from COVID-19 as a whole. But the uncertainty over what the future holds for public transport, and for urban transport more widely, continues.

Key uncertainties include that we don’t know what the new base level of public transport use will be once the restrictions on travel and on social distancing associated with the pandemic have been permanently removed and transport patronage has settled down to ‘new normal’. Our best current assessment is that without significant policy intervention, the base level of patronage will be well below what it was before the pandemic due to the changes in journey patterns that will have taken place – for example in regular commuting.

We also can’t be sure of when the ‘new normal’ will arrive. June 21st is the earliest possible date and it could be that even if that is achieved, that restrictions may temporarily return, either locally or nationally, at a later date.

What we do know is that the pandemic has underlined what was always true – which is that public transport gets essential workers who don’t have access to a car where they need to be. And without public transport, cities can’t function. It’s also clear that a just and green recovery from the pandemic isn’t possible without public transport. Transport’s poor performance is currently a drag on the UK achieving its carbon reduction targets and shifting more journeys to public transport and active travel will play a key role in correcting that. The pandemic has also hit hardest those people and communities with the least – who are also those who are least likely to be able to work from home. Better access to opportunity through affordable and better public transport is therefore key.

Government has rightly provided welcome emergency COVID-19 funding support during the pandemic so far – which has enabled the wheels of public transport to keep turning. Indeed, in some ways this is a unique situation in that unlike prior to the pandemic (when bus services were vanishing, leaving ‘public transport deserts’ in rural areas), during the pandemic the Government is guaranteeing a level of provision. But though it is doing this, it’s only doing it in a provisional and fragmented way – with different funding arrangements for each mode of public transport – and through a series of relatively short term funding mechanisms. Initially this funding has was predicated on the tacit assumption that the ‘new normal’ will arrive at a fixed point (which will be as soon as possible) when social distancing is removed and previous funding arrangements can be restored. More recently there has been a recognition of the need for ‘recovery funding’ which could bridge the gap between the end of the emergency period of the pandemic and the subsequent transition to when patronage has settled down to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. At which point the Government can step back.

But there is a bigger challenge with the mindset behind the idea of ‘getting back to normal’, ‘recovery funding’ and so on… which is that the normal we had before the pandemic falls well short of the aspirations we had then, and have now, at both local and national level, for greater use of public transport. For example, the totality of funding prior to the pandemic was insufficient to stem decline in bus use. The way that funding was provided (and indeed continued to be provided throughout the pandemic) was through multiple, poorly coordinated funding streams involving different Government departments and was not linked to delivering a coherent set of wider policy objectives for bus.

With at least four more months of pandemic restrictions ahead of us which will hold down public transport patronage, and with a mountain to climb after that to get public transport use back to where it was prior to the pandemic, it’s time for a new deal on urban transport.

This new deal for public transport should:

  • simplify, devolve and guarantee the revenue funding and powers that urban transport authorities need to enable us to plan and provide single integrated public transport networks in the most cost effective way. Both during the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.
  • include a long term capital funding deal for investment in urban transport (similar to the one that national rail and roads already have) so that we have the certainty we need to invest in the decarbonised urban transport networks that can serve all our communities and underpin a green and just recovery.

Find out more on our website here.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group