Party conferences and a crunch point

It felt like the fallow Covid period has reinvigorated party conferences as institutions that before felt like they were in a slow decline. But as the equivalent of Glastonbury for the party faithful they were far busier and buzzier than I was expecting.

The Conservative party conference was a sign of how far the Government has moved right into local transport’s territory with ‘levelling up’ the buzz phrase that nobody could resist saying as many times as possible as at many fringe meetings at possible. Levelling up is still a very baggy concept onto which all sorts of asks, ideas and wishes can be projected. However we are told that more definition will come when the spending review is published. In the meantime Levelling Up Minister, Neil O’Brien defined it on twitter (and on the fringes) as:

  • Empowering local leaders and communities
  • Growing the private sector and boosting living standards, particularly where they’re lower
  • Spreading opportunity and improving public services, particularly where they’re lacking
  • Restoring local pride

All of which is a good fit with the need to invest in and support public transport and active travel – and devolve more decisions over its future. With climate the other big theme of the Conservative party conference there is a big opportunity to ensure central Government funding decisions reflect these priorities. There is now a whiff of the 1970s Heath era for Economic policy – with regional development and industrial policies to the fore. Privatisation and deregulation is no longer an aim in itself (as we have now seen on both recent rail and bus policy). Again a helpful context for the goal of putting public transport networks back together as well as the ideal of a longer term approach to local transport funding.

If you look at the big radical changes (that were unforced by events) on local transport in recent times – none of them originated from DfT and all of them came from a big hitter in another more influential part of Government. So, the last big round of devolution and effective bus franchising powers came from Osborne when he was at HMT and the radical recent bus and active travel strategies came from Number Ten. Michael Gove’s new brief (which covers local government, levelling up and inter-departmental working is therefore very interesting) – as if he wanted to he could do something similarly significant. Although we will have to wait and see as he kept his powder dry at the party conference.

Another notable feature of this years’ conferences was the influence exerted over them by Mayors. Different Mayors have defined themselves in different high profile and characteristic ways as they have taken on the mantle (those that don’t tend not to last). They do this in different ways from Ben Houchen in Tees Valley focussed on delivering some big regionally significant projects (like the transformation of the former Redcar steelworks site and the turnaround of the local airport) to Andy Burnham setting out a timetable for when a fully integrated local public transport can be delivered. But overall there’s a sense now that the Mayoralties have found their feet, and as they roamed around the party conferences they also exerted a magnetic pull on the headlines and discourse that took place there.

The next big events for public transport are the spending review and the COP. The spending review will be a big test of whether there is going to be a significant recalibration of what the DfT does to align itself with the pressing need for both rapid decarbonisation and in realising the ambitious goals of the bus strategy. Or whether inter-city will continue to triumph over intra-city – with a significant share of capital funding still hoovered up by the monstrosity which is the £27bn national roads programme. The other big question is to what extent the Spending Review will enable existing public transport networks to be maintained (through continuing to fill the funding gap left by depleted patronage due to COVID) as a base on which to build the aspirations of the bus strategy. It certainly feels very tight at the moment (particularly for those with responsibilities for light rail systems where HMT are saying there is no possibility of more money post April). Meanwhile our world is also being rocked by two additional phenomena. Firstly cracks are showing in the just-in-time global supply chain and the shaky illusion that we could always get what we needed at declining cost whenever we needed. Stranded containers, empty shelves and soaring energy prices are prime indicators of this. Secondly, aging workforces and workforces who can get jobs they either prefer or can get more money doing (or both) is leading to higher wages and driver shortages. All exacerbated by the persistent inability of DVSA to get its act together. These two trends could both increase the cost of standing still in terms of levels of public transport provision – and further eat into available funding for improvements.

Everything is also made more complex by the fact that we don’t know yet what the new baseline is for public transport demand and whether the trends we are seeing now are transient or permanent. The danger for us all in this situation that we are locked into a debate about whether we want more or less than we had before in terms of public transport provision – rather than taking a fresh look at just what kind of public transport system we need post-COVID but decarbonising world. And therefore what are the main objectives for that public transport system. For example should we shift from an office rush hour driven network to networks that provide a more consistent service across more hours given leisure appears to be where new markets are to be had? Should urban public transport be seen as a universal low fare utility to provide access for all to support levelling up goals? Or should it focus on providing a premium product to attract cash rich, time poor motorists with an alternative they are prepared to use? In the mixer too now is the pressing need to ensure that the organisations that provide public transport should better reflect the diversity of the areas they serve both in the decisions they take and the people they employ. The easy bit is keeping up with the cycle of awareness days on twitter with suitable corporate tweets and vynling up buses and trains. More challenging is to take a long hard look at the data we collect, the way we consult, the planning tools we use to determine the service we provide and thus who it serves and who it doesn’t. Something that has been sharply exposed by two recent events that we have got behind: the Gender on the Agenda events that Landor are running and that we are sponsoring – and the last Urban Transport Next event that we ran on child friendly decision making on transport. Fairness, climate and responding to post-COVID changes in where people want to be when, are the three factors that should be shaping some new thinking about what urban public transport is for. If we don’t get hemmed in by dealing with one short term funding challenge after another – and with local government now in the budget setting process for 22/23 we have already arrived at another crunch point.

Jonathan Bray

A pdf of this article can be downloaded here.

Five things I learned from the party conference circuit…

1.The Government has moved right into local transport’s territory with ‘levelling up’ one of the key themes (and devolution a sub theme) of the Conservative party conference. It’s still a very baggy concept onto which all sorts of asks, ideas and wishes can be projected onto but we are told that more definition will come when the spending review is published. In the meantime Levelling Up Minister, Neil O’Brien defined it on twitter (and on the fringes) as:

  • Empowering local leaders and communities
  • Growing the private sector and boosting living standards, particularly where they’re lower
  • Spreading opportunity and improving public services, particularly where they’re lacking
  • Restoring local pride

All of which is a good fit with the need to invest in and support public transport and active travel – and devolve more decisions over its future. With climate the other big theme of the Conservative party conference there is a big opportunity now to ensure central Government funding decisions reflect these priorities. At the same time there is now a whiff of the 1970s Heath era for Economic policy – with regional development and industrial policies to the fore. Privatisation and deregulation is no longer an aim in itself (as we have now seen on both rail and bus). Again a helpful context for the goal of putting public transport networks back together as well as the ideal of a longer term approach to local transport funding.

2. If you look at the big changes on local transport in recent times – none of them originated from DfT and all of them came from a big hitter in another more influential part of Government. So, the last big round of devolution and effective bus franchising powers came from Osborne when he was at HMT and the radical recent bus and active travel strategies came from Number Ten. Michael Gove’s new brief which covers local government, levelling up and inter-departmental working is therefore very interesting – as if he wanted to he could do something similarly significant. Although we will have to wait and see as he kept his powder dry at the party conference.

3. Different Mayors have defined themselves in different high profile and characteristic ways as they have taken on the mantle (those that don’t tend not to last). They do this in different ways from Ben Houchen in Tees Valley focussed on delivering some big regionally significant projects (like the transformation of the former Redcar steelworks site and the turnaround of the local airport) to Andy Burnham setting out a timetable for when a fully integrated local public transport can be delivered. But overall there’s a sense now that the Mayoralties have found their feet, and as they roamed around the party conferences they also exerted a magnetic pull on the headlines and discourse that took place there.

4. It feels like the fallow Covid period has reinvigorated party conferences as institutions (they were far busier and buzzier than I was expecting) that previously felt like they were in decline.

5. Next up – the outcomes of the spending review and the imperative that the COP talks in Glasgow will give for transport decarbonisation policy and implementation.

Jonathan Bray

Tiger in the tank – the story of the first female Secretary of State for Transport

On September 8th more than 350 people took part in the first of the ‘Gender on the Agenda’ events that UTG is sponsoring. A good indicator that this is an issue whose time has come. Meanwhile on October 9th a statue will be unveiled in Blackburn of former local MP, Barbara Castle, on what would have been her 111th birthday. Seems like a good time then to tell the story of Britain’s first female Secretary of State for Transport. Arguably the most significant and dynamic Secretary of State for Transport there has been. And the author of what was the largest piece of non-financial legislation since the war – the 1968 Transport Act.

First the context. In the mid-1960s, Britain was going through a crash transformation, from muddling on with clapped out Victorian transport systems and urban forms, to full on consumer boom modernism. Towns and cities were being rebuilt along clean lines; tower blocks were reaching upwards; and the roads were getting wider.

Government transport policy was a bought-and-paid-for mechanism for encouraging the growth of the motor industry. Terrace houses and steam engines weren’t beloved and desirable as they are now: they were an embarrassment. The car and lorry was in the ascendency (by 1966 the roads were carrying 90% of passenger mileage and 60% of freight ton mileage).

Meanwhile Britain’s Victorian railway had been worked to the bone during the war. Post-war it had to modernise as quickly as state funds would allow whilst taking a battering from road competition. By the early Sixties the railways were struggling with a mountain of debt and had fallen out of fashion compared with the liberation of the car and the open road. The Beeching axe was seen as just the start. Phase two would have butchered what was left – the East Coast Main Line would have gone from London to Newcastle and stopped there. Bus use was in free fall.

At the same time there was carnage on the roads. 8,000 deaths a year – which is not surprising when people could drink as much as they liked before driving as fast as they liked and with nothing to restrain them from hurtling through their own windscreen as a consequence.

And then, in 1966, came Barbara Castle. Transport was a job she never wanted – after her first ministerial appointment at overseas development she was hoping for one of the top three Cabinet posts. But in the end transport was the job she enjoyed the most. Harold Wilson said he wanted a “tiger in the tank” of his transport policy and that’s what he got. In many ways the role played to Barbara Castle’s strengths. A gift for harnessing positive publicity in her favour – helpful in what can be a high profile Department. And a determination to craft the right solution to difficult and complex problems where the typical politician would have chosen the path of least resistance. She also realised that at Transport she had the opportunity to bring all her long held views on the need for a planned approach to the economy to fruition through the prism of one important element of Government policy.

Despite her reputation as the ‘red queen’ there was both pragmatism as well as radicalism in what she did in her short time in the post.

On the radical side, she established Passenger Transport Executives for the major conurbations, whose job it would be produce master plans for transport in their areas, run local bus services and turn around the urban rail networks that had survived the Beeching era. With London Transport also now coming under the control of the Greater London Council for the first time, the city regions would have accountable transport authorities whose job it was to provide high quality and integrated public transport.

The PTEs’ initial tasks included getting to grips with welding local bus services into integrated wholes and deciding what to do with the ailing rail networks they inherited. Tyne and Wear went for the radical option of converting their decrepit local heavy rail network into a new and integrated Tyne and Wear Metro. Merseyside utilised ‘loop and link’ tunnels in Liverpool to turn around its urban rail network. Greater Manchester had less luck in getting funding for a rail tunnel (the ‘Picc-Vicc’ tunnel) to link its southern and northern rail network- though ultimately the successful Manchester Metrolink tram network has proved to be a more than adequate alternative.

Castle complemented the creation of strategic city region transport bodies by raising urban public transport investment, so that it was more on a par with roads, and providing more funding for bus services. She also established the concept of the ‘social railway’ – the principle that government can subsidise unprofitable railways where they bring wider social and economic benefits. The era saw a significant write off of BR debt, too, and much of the publicly owned canal network was saved for leisure use.

On the roads Castle took what she saw as the pragmatic approach, accepting that acting as King Canute was not an option: the country had made its choice and an increase in private car use was inevitable. The original Beeching rail closure programme was largely allowed to play itself out – although she did pluck some routes from the inferno and set a floor for the network well above what was envisaged in the second Beeching report. There’s no doubt that we should now have a bigger rail network than we do now (some of the largest annual contractions of the network happened on her watch) but we could have had a lot smaller one if she hadn’t steadied the ship. And the railways decades long slow comeback also has its roots in her tenure.

She was also determined to make the roads safer. Just as sensible measures to reduce death, injury and risk on the roads now are drowned out by vitriol in the media and by boorish petrolheads so they were then. This included death threats which she turned to her political advantage (she made sure the press got pictures of her going to the pub with her husband and the newly assigned detective on tow). She persevered (naturally) and speed limits, breathalysers and seat belts were the result. 

The 1968 Transport Act was where it was all meant to come together (and mostly did). A grand design for an all encompassing new integrated transport policy. A policy that would accommodate the reality of growing demand for car ownership and use (whilst improving road safety), rescue and revive public transport, pave the way for traffic restrain and integrated networks in urban areas as well as tidy up a host of other transport miscellany (from the canal network to the safeguarding of historic transport relics). She fought to keep as much of her vision intact as she could: the new Act required a record-breaking 45 committee sittings and faced considerable parliamentary opposition (Enoch Powell described the Bill as ‘evil’). But she left transport before the process was completed, and her successor Richard Marsh was all too amenable to ditching what he could, including some radical proposals which would have kept more freight on rail through a new system of licencing for lorries which was felled by the road haulage industry and its unions (thanks lads).

So what’s the lessons for today for anyone in with clout in transport and who wants to do something with that clout? A stand out is that you need to go out there and relentlessly sell radical change: Castle always had her press people in for the key decisions, and led from the front on making the case. But perhaps more than anything it is to heed these words of hers: “There are great temptations to play safe, and then I think a slow moral corruption sets in… the higher you go, the more you’ve got to lose. It become easier to argue with yourself. And it can be a very tricky thing indeed, this. You need timing and you need judgement and you need courage.”

Jonathan Bray

A brochure on the story of Barbara Castle and the 1968 Transport Act can be downloaded here: https://www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/types/documents/barbara-castle-and-story-1968-transport-act

A PDF of this article can be downloaded here: https://www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/types/documents/passenger-transport-article-issue-249