The government’s air quality stance is out of line with devolution

In a comment piece in the latest issue of Local Government Chronicle, Urban Transport Group Director Jonathan Bray was left feeling underwhelmed by the Government’s draft plan on tackling NOin towns and cities – especially as it relates to the role devolved regional powers could bring to improving air quality.

On the basis of the consultation draft there’s a lot of work to do before urban transport authorities will know whether they will have the necessary clarity, commitment and funding from national government that they will need given the scale of the task on air quality.

This includes key areas like the future funding regime for the greening of freight vehicles, buses and coaches; the future national taxation regime for road vehicles; and the funding that national government will make available to affected areas.

There is also a lack of clarity around the baselines, target dates and areas covered, all of which are clearly key to any effective air quality strategy, as well as to what extent the impacts of different elements of the strategy have been modelled individually or in relation to each other.

These challenges are compounded by the mixed messages in the strategy where the need to meet specific legal air quality targets is set against vague and general references to the need not to impede economic growth, without any clear definition of what the latter might mean and how this might be weighted against specific legal duties.

The ambiguity of the criteria gives national government the scope to second guess, amend and veto a local air quality strategy

In short the government’s overall approach could be summarised as delegating responsibility for tackling the problem to local government while delaying key decisions on the national funding, taxation and policy framework which necessarily create the context for any effective local government air quality strategy.

This puts the two processes (local air quality strategies and national funding and fiscal policy) out of sync. It also means national government retains a de facto veto over local government air quality plans on the basis of criteria, the ambiguity of which gives national government the scope to second guess, amend and veto a local air quality strategy. This is out of line with government’s wider stated commitment to devolution on the basis that local areas are best placed to determine the most appropriate response to specific local public policy issues and challenges.

Overall there needs to be much more of an emphasis on government action and funding given that local authorities do not control all the necessary (and some of the most effective) tools. Compliance can only be achieved as quickly as possible if government uses its own powers, takes action and provides funding as part of a wider partnership and joint enterprise with the affected areas.

Why we are running a #transportskills week

Our members, the Government and transport users alike all have hopes and expectations for improved transport infrastructure both regionally and nationally. However engineering is just one dimension of the skills shortages that face the transport sector exacerbated by a workforce which is ageing and which does not reflect the diversity of wider society. Indeed the Department for Transport is predicting a 55,000 shortfall in skilled workers in transport infrastructure by 2020, which is a major threat to transport infrastructure development. One key reason why we supporting National Women in Engineering Day this Friday.

The Urban Transport Group has long supported initiatives designed to encourage and promote careers in transport and to enhance diversity in recruitment – we strongly believe there’s a need to make a career in the transport sector more appealing to a more diverse range of people not least because sorting out your cities transport challenges in creative and effective ways, or delivering that transport service, is an exciting and rewarding thing to do. Yet the image the sector projects is not cutting through.

In the run up to National Women in Engineering Day on Friday, 23 June we will be highlighting the many excellent initiatives and examples that are out not just on encouraging women into the engineering sector, and transport more widely, but also on many other aspects of skills and diversity. And there are some great initiatives out there – the Chartered Institute of Highways and Logistics (CIHT) has a toolkit to address the lack of diversity in the transport sector and deliver benefits such as recruitment from a wider talent pool, benefits to corporate reputation and improvements in creativity and innovation. The toolkit can be found here. There are a number of national schemes that help employees to go into schools and promote careers in their areas. These include STEMNET for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics based careers, the Royal Geographical Society’s Geography Ambassador scheme, for geography related careers, and Inspiring the Future, which is not sector or subject specific.

#Transportskills week forms part of our wider work on capabilities and capacities which includes creating the only guide – that we are aware of – that profiles the various national relevant skills and diversity initiatives which the transport sector could participate in or take advantage of.

UTG will continue to work in this area, and we have established a People and Skills Hub on our website for our members, in order to share information about national initiatives like those highlighted in the guide. In addition, our wider Capacities and Capabilities workstream (of which our people and skills work stream is part) seeks to improve the capabilities and capacities of our members, including through an ‘Insight’ hub for datasets and indicators and shared technical and transport planning tools.

If we want urban transport to meet the needs of our changing and growing cities then we need those who plan, deliver and provide urban transport systems to reflect the vibrancy, diversity and creativity of those who live there and we need urban transport organisations that offer careers that build skills, fit lifestyles and support peoples’ development. There’s plenty of great skills and diversity initiatives out there to help this process – and highlighting those is what our #transportskills week is all about.

Smart futures for urban transport: making it work for travellers and cities

Change isn’t coming – it is already here. Transformative technological change (allied with social change – the transition to a sharing economy in particular) is shifting the ground beneath our feet as big city transport authorities. Three areas in particular stand out. Firstly, the explosion of data which means that citizens can be far better informed as travellers about their options but also potentially have a greater say over decisions on transport. The planners evaluating the options for new services, infrastructure and facilities will also be far better informed about the implications of different options. Secondly, new vehicle technologies will mean that vehicles are smarter, greener and better connected. There is also the potential for them to become more autonomous. Thirdly, new means of paying for access to transport alongside new business models open up the potential for Mobility as a Service – where travellers can buy packages of mobility that can be used across all modes (including bike hire, car hire and taxis).

Better informed decision making, both individually and collectively, as well as transport systems which are smarter and cleaner, offers an exciting prospect. However, there’s more to getting the best from this smart future than just letting technology rip. For example the growth in the taxi market, fuelled by new business models, is bringing benefits to consumers but at the expense of growing traffic congestion. Who will ensure that those on the wrong side of the digital divide can still get around? How can we ensure that technology plays its full role in improving air quality and tackling carbon emissions?

Much of the debate on what we call ‘smart futures’ tends to be focussed on excitement around the technology itself. However, technology should not be an end in itself. It should be about making individual journeys easier whilst also serving wider public policy goals for cities – like cleaner air, inclusive growth and urban environments that people want to visit, invest in, live in and work in.

This is where the Urban Transport Group, and its members come in, and it’s what ‘Our Vision for Smart Futures’ that we launched today is all about.

A vision that commits us to recognising the pace of change and the benefits it can bring in the way that we work and operate; making sure that change makes travel simpler and easier whilst ensuring that change does not leave behind any sector of society or community or leads to unintended consequences that damage cities as a whole (such as more traffic congestion)

I hope that this vision statement will help remind national government, Transportation Network Companies and the tech sector that to get the best from smart futures we need a broader dialogue on smart futures on transport, one in which public sector transport authorities and wider city region government is integral.

Follow this link to download a copy of ‘Our Vision for Smart Futures‘.