Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: Part three

In the last of a series of three blog posts, pteg Support Unit Director Jonathan Bray concludes his look back over ten years of the pteg Support Unit.

Ten years of pteg: the way we work and the way cities will work in the future

Evening city scene - Liverpool

Focus on what transport does for people, economies, cities, the environment and society.

The way we work

  • ‘Train hard, fight easy’. You need your stats, your evidence, your best arguments in place before you start to engage in a policy debate.
  • If you want to achieve policy change you need to be sharper, more relentless and be better at strategy than those who seek to defend the status quo because the incumbents always have the advantage and usually have greater resources.
  • Get the right staff. When your resources are limited and everything you do should be better than the incumbants (see above!) you need to make sure you have the right staff – so we put the time and effort into recruitment and got the right staff.
  • Press every button. It’s hard to know exactly why suddenly old policy consensus crumbles and new ones are established – so press every button available to you from reports, use of the media, stakeholder engagement – the lot.
  • Don’t commission research as a displacement activity or leave whoever is writing it to their own devices. Or let it sit on the shelf when done. Go through the pain barrier with whoever is working on it to ensure it fits the bill and then use it as the bedrock for the work you do in that area for the next couple of years at least. And find ways to get people to read it once it’s published.
  • Don’t go on about transport too much. Transport people love transport detail. The rest of the world doesn’t care. They are interested in what transport does for them, their economy, their cities, their environment, their society, the world they live in. Focus on that.

Building our reputation and effectiveness

pteg reports (Picture: Brainstorm Design)

Our reports have set a direction for emerging policy areas, like Total Transport (Picture: Brainstorm Design)

The Support Unit isn’t big, pteg may not always be liked – but we are good at what we do, we are a force to be reckoned with, we’ve saved our members millions and we have made the weather across a range of urban transport policy issues. Some of what’s been achieved is covered elsewhere in the previous parts of this blogpost, but it’s also been gratifying how we’ve been able to set a direction for emerging policy areas through focussed research and policy documents and through painstaking work to get internal and external stakeholders on board. Three examples:

  • In my view our work on social inclusion and transport over the decade (and in particular on young people in the last few years) has been the most lucid, consistent and focussed from any UK body in setting out the key challenges and how best they can be addressed
  • Our 2011 report on ‘Total Transport’ remains the primary document on pooling vehicle fleets and budgets
  • Our work on the opportunities for transport from the devolution of public health responsibilities is encapsulated in a hub on our website which provides the best introduction out there to local transport authority officers on what they can achieve in this area.

Smart cities / smart grid / smart transport

What seemed very far away now seems much closer. Cities with smart grids based on renewable energy powering largely electric transport systems. Mobile phones giving access to all forms of transport (from rental electric cars and bikes to public transport). Roads which are more social spaces than channels for cars. And this future is starting to form itself in big cities like Berlin. These kinds of developments transform the whole nature of the transport debate and open up some exciting opportunities for transport authorities to take the lead in guiding these changes in a way that maximises the benefits. There’s more on all of this in our recent blogpost on ‘Three global transport trends that should reshape our cities’.

Electric car, Berlin

Smart cities: there for the taking

So near…

Our city regions are not so far as it might sometimes seem from emulating what London takes for granted. Not in terms of underground rail networks and the scale of provision overall – but in getting the key building blocks in place. If the city regions can gain more say over rail and bus – then smart ticketing can fuse the two into the same single network that is the basis for London’s successful transport system. From there our cities can kick on to go smart and offer comprehensive total mobility packages, electrify transport systems in the most cost effective way and transform urban centres into more sociable, sustainable and prosperous places. It’s there for the taking.

Jonathan Bray

< Read Part two in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’, focusing on the unstoppable force of devolution.

< Read Part one in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’, featuring top ten highlights of the last ten years plus the influence of London.

Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: Part two

In the second of a series of three blog posts, pteg Support Unit Director Jonathan Bray continues his look back over ten years of the pteg Support Unit.

Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: The unstoppable force of devolution

Merseyrail train at station

Devolution has seen Merseyrail Electrics transform into one of the best performing rail networks in the country

Some of the votes on devolution to Wales, Scotland and London were tight. They wouldn’t be if they were re-run now. And devolution has been good for transport. London is the most striking example with just about every aspect of transport in the capital either transformed for the better, or in the process of being transformed. Rail investment has also rocketed in Scotland. Some of the best performing rail routes are also those that have been devolved – London Overground and Merseyrail Electrics in particular.

The trouble is that for England outside London what tier of governance you devolve to is less clear cut. Regions, city regions, Counties, Districts – what you do for one area has implications for others. This, coupled with the Metropolitan policy elite’s disdain for inquiring too deeply (see Part one) has led to both this and the previous government layering on various initiatives which don’t always relate to each other and lack sufficient decisiveness. Whitehall too is reluctant to fully let go – because now that Scotland, Wales and London are gone – there’s only the rest of England left to play with. So progress is slow, messy and fitful but it’s happening – and it is a one way process. Ultimately though, the logic of having local public transport services controlled locally will prevail and our major cities will have transport systems and planning arrangements that will look and feel more like those in London and in cities across Europe. We will get there in the end.

The rise and rise of rail

Design for a high speed train by Priestmangoode

Rail is now seen as a symbol of the future – rather than of the past (Picture: Priestmangoode)

Fifty years ago Beeching slashed and burned as much of the rail network as he could get away with. And in the decades that followed the rail network was constantly having to fend off a Whitehall establishment that saw rail as a costly problem bequeathed to them by an earlier era that sooner or later they would deal with decisively and terminally. But in the last ten years or so there’s been an extraordinary turn around. Not least because there’s been a boom in rail traffic. Particularly on our city region networks – where growth has outstripped that of London and the South East as people commute further and in greater numbers to access the jobs and opportunities in revitalised core city centres. Rail now looks more like the future and less like the past. HS2 symbolises all of that. After decades as being seen as a costly problem to be managed down to size, rail is seen as part of the solution not the problem. Rail is something that politicians of all kinds want to be associated with. There’s also a sense recently that some of rail’s stardust has settled on the other modes. The recently flurry of investment and expansion of tram schemes – with, most notably, Manchester Metrolink becoming a full on network. And even the bus has lost some of its ‘loser cruiser’ stigma with the Metropolitan policy elite in the last year or so. The bus is now seen as a respectable policy option – if not yet a cool one! The protection of BSOG in the Spending Review being one sign of that.

The battle for the bus

The bus is local public transport for most people outside London. Yet because buses in London are sorted and the bus lacks social cache, bus services outside London had largely been left to decline. Part of a gentlemen’s agreement between Whitehall and the large operators that the bus operators would pretend to compete with each other while Whitehall would pretend to care about falling patronage and rising fares. And whilst the media was hypnotised by every twist and turn of the politics and profits of rail privatisation they let the massive profits being generated off the back of the poorest people in Britain by deregulated bus services outside London go unreported and unexplored. Even though it’s been these profits that have actually been fuelling the wider global ambitions of the big groups. Meanwhile local government in general had slipped into cosy ‘decline management ‘mode on bus. How sloppy were things before we got stuck in? Not long before we started the DfT seconded a senior official to work for CPT on policy, media and public affairs (a fairly easy job lobbying yourself!); maintenance standards were so shoddy wheels were coming off First Group buses in service; and the Traffic Commissioners were regularly dealing with truly appalling early, late and non-running – because even the largest operators knew they could get away with it.

Speakers from the pteg Urban Bus event

New alliances are being forged in support of bus, as our recent ‘Case for the Urban Bus’ event showed. (L-R): Konstanze Scharring, Director of Policy, SMMT; Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive, Campaign for Better Transport; David Brown, Chair, pteg; Pedro Abrantes, Economist, pteg; Claire Haigh, Chief Executive, Greener Journeys; Dr Janet Atherton, President, Association of Directors of Public Health; and Tony Travers, Director, LSE. Picture by Andrew Wiard andrew@reportphotos.com

We changed all that. We put some sharp dividing lines into the bus debate. We dragged bus policy out of the shadows and into the public arena. We had to fight unbelievably hard against Ministers who too often sided with their hostile officials to get some workable legislation for local transport authorities to improve bus services and we worked together as a network to put that legislation into practice.

We were vilified  for doing this not only by the operators (fair enough) but also by their legions of spear carriers – including the world’s most craven trade press and the extensive selection of organisations and individuals who in one way or another are on the bus companies payroll and whose main job it is to enforce a ‘partnership’ (deregulation) consensus at all costs.

We kept going regardless and by doing so the bus is in a far better place than it was ten years ago. At the very least the bus operators know that they have to be seen to push to the very limits what can be achieved in a deregulated environment – which is increasingly guided by legal agreements which came out of the 2008 Local Transport Act. Meanwhile our tenth anniversary saw the first move by a Local Transport Authority (Nexus) to trigger the statutory process for the franchising of bus services (a ‘Quality Contract’) which if it goes ahead will allow bus services to be properly planned and managed and make Tyne and Wear the first conurbation outside London to enjoy the benefits of simple, smart and integrated zonal ticketing across the modes.

Jonathan Bray

Read Part three in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ which looks at the way we work and the way cities will work in the future. >

< Read Part one in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ featuring top ten highlights of the last ten years plus the influence of London.

Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: Part one

pteg has been going for far longer than ten years, but it was a decade ago when the PTEs decided that to work more effectively as a network, and to punch their weight in Whitehall they needed a Support Unit to bring greater focus. I have been there throughout (first as Assistant Director and then Director). In the first of a series of three blog posts, here are some personal reflections on those ten years.

Top ten highlights of the last ten years

  • Building our reputation and effectiveness: working with a great team at the Support Unit, and the wider PTE network, to turn pteg into a force to be reckoned with that has saved our members millions.
  • Assembling an evidence base that got results in the 2013 Spending Review: Several years of painstakingly filling the gaps in our funding case paid off.
  • Local Transport Act 2008: A right old slog to get workable legislation on buses – but we did it!
  • Our ‘think tank’ role in finding policies that work for new and emerging issues: From young people to Total Transport, and from public health to social inclusion we have been ahead of the game in clearly setting out the challenges ahead and the policies that can work.
  • The rise and rise of rail: Fifty years ago the future for the mode looked grim – now there’s an all-party consensus behind it – backed up with sustained investment and with HS2 beckoning.
  • Manchester Metrolink: The UK has its first comprehensive modern tram network – and done with style.
  • Merseyrail devolution: From Miseryline to successful network – devolution works right here right now!
  • 2008 pteg Support Unit team at Barbara Castle train naming

    Barbara Castle commemoration: with (L-R) Saila Acton and Jonathan Bray (there from the start of the SU and still here!), Tim Larner (former Director) and Louisa Moore (former Policy Advisor)

    Barbara Castle commemoration: Naming a train after the Secretary of State for Transport who established the PTEs and writing the story of the 1968 Transport Act that she brought in to do it.

  • Cycling goes mainstream: ten years ago cycling was right at the margins of transport policy and the public consciousness. Not any more – something’s changed. It feels like we are now on the verge of a big shift to the bike.
  • Smart cities / smart transport: Smart cities powered by smart grids and made functional through smart transport systems, are moving from the realms of conjecture to reality.

Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: London calling

The ice age

New Labour was in charge for most of the decade but transport wasn’t a priority for Blair or Brown. They ticked the no publicity box. Or as former Transport SoS, Alistair Darling, recently summed up this approach – ‘transport is best when it is boring’. By and large Ministers came and went without leaving much of an impression. There were a few exceptions from those that just read out the civil service briefs. An honourable mention for Douglas Alexander who grasped the nettle on bus regulation legislation – which eventually led to a much more workable set of bus powers than that which the officials made sure was thoroughly booby trapped and inoperable in the 2000 Transport Act. Labour saved the best till last with Lord Adonis. He was fascinated by the brief, saw no reason why he shouldn’t do something with it – and he did. Setting a pattern of hyperactivity on the detail that in some ways set a template for Norman Baker. But we didn’t know we were well off in that there was money to spend on transport. Something that came to a shuddering halt after the banking crisis. But the overwhelming feeling was one of a largely ignored opportunity.

After the crash

Norman Baker MP speaking at a pteg event

Norman Baker MP has bought renewed energy to the local transport brief

The Coalition came in and set to their task with some gusto. In the name of getting public spending under control many of the engines of transport investment were switched off with schemes stopped in their tracks and local transport spend outside London dramatically reduced. Now the engines have been switched on again and credit to them – evidence does count with this Government. Local government was lax in setting out the evidence for the benefits of local transport spending pre-2010 and paid the price. We’ve plugged that gap now and seen the benefits of doing so flow in the 2013 Spending Review. Transport has also been home to pragmatist Secretary of States since 2010 with Norman Baker putting more energy into the Local Transport brief than any previous Minister in the last decade. He’s also been given a relatively free hand to push and nudge local transport policy in a progressive direction – particularly on cycling.

The group think of the metropolitan policy elite

One prevailing frustration over the decade has been dealing with the stunning level of ignorance in London about the political and economic geography of the world beyond the M25. Especially galling now that London runs itself whilst Whitehall rules the rest of England. But not having a clue about the difference between, say, Greater Manchester and the city of Manchester – or not knowing the first thing about how local government works outside London – is not seen as any hindrance whatsoever to being able to make policy. There is no requirement on a civil servant who is in charge of decision making about the regions to have any real idea about how transport or governance works outside London. Time and time again we have had to explain the basics. All of which is one reason why England outside London is subject to successive policies on governance (under this government and the last one) which have little reference to previous policies, creating layers upon layers of initiatives which are rarely fully implemented or conclusive.

As well as their shoulder shrugging ‘so what’ ignorance about the provinces they rule – the other problem with the metropolitan policy elite is groupthink. The big ideas for transport policy over the last ten years have been road user charging and mayors. And once the idea is established as groupthink it becomes the answer to everything. Road user charging is a prime example. Putting aside the arguments about whether or not road user charging is a good or a bad thing, the problem was that the obsession with road user charging ended up wasting a lot of time which only ended when the concept was tested to electoral destruction in Manchester and Edinburgh. The Metropolitan policy elite just wouldn’t listen until then. There was a prolonged period when meeting after meeting with the DfT always ended up with the DfT saying you can have what you want – but only if you introduce road user charging. A more savvy approach would have been to give local transport authorities outside London more of the flexibility they need to tackle congestion and raise transport funding locally – of which road user charging is one option. That lesson has kind of been learned now but at the expense of some wasted years.

Cars entering congestion charging zone (c )Transport for London

Road user charging: a game changer for London, more flexibility needed elsewhere

Dizzy London

In many ways this decade has all been about London. High investment levels and progressive policy change has led to the  transformation of just about every aspect of the capital’s transport network for the better.  London was of course the biggest beneficiary of this but London changed the terms of the debate on urban transport policy for everybody else. Or to be more precise the man who brought the most leadership to transport policy in the last decade did. And that’s Ken Livingstone. The three big game changers that are down to him are:

  • Defying Westminster politicians of all stripes – and just about everybody else – to introduce road user charging in London
  • Ramping up the London bus network to transform it beyond recognition into arguably the best urban bus network in the world
  • Using an effective combination of charm and menaces to get the Whitehall machine behind a massive investment programme for public transport in London

All of this established a new consensus that a high quality public transport network, coupled with traffic restraint measures, could change a city for the better – including supporting a dynamic economy. This seems obvious now but it wasn’t then. It’s hard to see any other Mayoral candidate at that time pursuing such radical policies with such intent – and delivering them. The safer option would be to have played the percentages, to not introduce road user charging and to have been even-handed across the modes. If that had happened the jury would still have been out on whether devolution was the right way forward for transport; whether a world class city needed a world class public transport system; whether you could ever introduce radical measures on traffic restraint in the UK; and on much else that is now taken for granted. This bravado and ambition also created the space for his successor to continue the broad thrust of what Ken Livingstone set in motion but with a marked flourish around cycling. It’s also a model that others have noted – perhaps most noticeably in our patch in Manchester. If you want to do big things, look and act big.

Jonathan Bray

Read Part two in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ focusing on the unstoppable force of devolution. >

Read Part three in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ which looks at the way we work and the way cities will work in the future. >