Spending Review 2020 – the fine print on urban transport

The headlines…

  • The focus remains on capital investment
  • Overall (non-COVID19) spending projections for the next five years are below the Chancellor’s pre-pandemic plans
  • Non-COVID spending is well below pre-austerity levels for not protected Departments including transport and local government
  • Things will probably get worse for non-protected departments (including Transport and MHCLG)

Here’s some Resolution Foundation analysis…

‘While headlines have focused on cuts to the aid budget, in practice this will mean austerity feels alive and well for many departments at the time of the next election. Unprotected departments will remain almost a quarter smaller in 2024-25 compared 2009-10, with the Department for Transport still down by 45 per cent.’

Torsten Bell in the Times 26/11/20

Zero COVID19 revenue support funding for local transport for 21/22

Here’s the scary table from the Spending Review…

Gulp…there is a COVID19 revenue allocation for national rail for 21/22…but not for bus and tram outside London or for TfL. Given the virus itself is unlikely to be vanquished entirely by April 1st 2021 (never mind patronage fully restored) this would be a disaster for local public transport networks and those who rely on them. And that’s putting aside the way in which national rail is prioritised above any other form of public transport. It may be this is HMT’s starting point for a negotiation but its not helpful or realistic either way. One way HMT may be planning to square the circle can be found elsewhere in the spending review where it announces its intention to eat into the £3bn extra funding which had specifically been earmarked for improving bus services over the next three years.

‘£300 million in 2021-22 to drive transformation of bus services. This funding will be drawn down in the first instance for any further Covid-19 support that may be required, while progressing reform to deliver better outcome’

More widely national rail and road (as well as charging infrastructure) gets a multi-year settlement but local transport does not. As part of this the zombie national road programme also continues unimpeded as 1970s road schemes are reanimated. In the process generating one thing that the UK isn’t short of (car dependent sprawl) whilst funneling ever greater amounts of traffic into urban areas (where the Government has said it wants road space reallocated to active travel and buses).

Local Government funding – enough to muddle through for 21/22?

Although the longer term prospects don’t look good – with some hefty council tax rises, then maybe. Here’s what the LGA had to say: https://www.local.gov.uk/lga-responds-spending-review

New funds for urban transport?

There are a range of new funds for transport authorities to take a shot at. These include the £4bn levelling up fund which the Spending Review summarises thus: ‘this new cross-departmental Fund for England will invest in a broad range of high value local projects up to £20 million, or more by exception, including bypasses and other local road schemes, bus lanes, railway station upgrades, regenerating eyesores, upgrading town centres and community infrastructure, and local arts and culture. SR20 makes available up to £600m in 2021-22.’ 

There’s some good analysis on this in the Times.

MP support will be a factor in winning bids under this funding stream – which echoes the stress on MP involvement in the most recent tranche of active travel funding.

There’s also a new fund for the largest city regions where

‘Eight City regions will also benefit from £4.2 billion government investment in five year funding settlements for local transport starting in 2022-23, and £50 million in 21/22 to support preparations for settlements. Following the approach that has worked for London, these settlements will be agreed with elected Mayors and published, providing transparency and accountability while giving Mayors the flexibility and certainty to deliver their plans. The city regions that will receive settlements, subject to appropriate governance, include Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, Tyne and Wear, West of England and Tees Valley. This will deliver the NIC’s recommendation to provide settlements that enable long-term and locally-led investment in large cities transport networks, devolving decisions on local transport to those that understand those systems best.’

There’s also news on the replacement for EU structural funds – the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. £220m will be provided for the pilot programmes and new approaches, and further details of this funding will be set out in the new year. Part of the funding project will be about investment in communities and place, “including cultural and sporting facilities, civic, green and rural infrastructure, community-owned assets, neighbourhood and housing improvements, town centre and transport improvements and digital connectivity”investment for local business, which includes support for “innovation, green and tech adoption, tailored to local needs”.

Further details of the UKSPF will be set out in a “UK-wide investment framework” which is due to be published in the spring.

Key initial takeaways

  • There are some hard yards ahead on securing sufficient revenue support to keep local public transport going during the pandemic and to get public transport back on its feet afterwards. Never mind it being in a fit state for the expansion needed for it to play its full part in meeting the wider decarbonisation challenge.
  • Despite its inherent inefficiencies competition funding remains the Government’s preferred format – although the longer term £4.2bn allocation for eight city regions looks like a better compromise.
  • The stress on pump priming the electrification of vehicle fleets is welcome but an inadequate counterweight to a climate deaf national roads programme which eats up vast amounts of DfT spend which could be so much more gainfully employed.
  • Local transport remains the poor relation to national transport not least in the hand to mouth funding arrangements compared with the multi-year settlements for national rail and road.

COVID-19 and urban transport – the message, the money & the future


The message

We’ve had the first weekend in England since the latest easing of COVID-19 and now the first working week has begun. Early signs are that public transport patronage is picking up sharply but it’s too early to say at the time of writing to what extent this will stretch the capacity of public transport which is already heavily constrained by social distancing.

However, the time is surely approaching when we can move away from a single national approach to messaging about the use of public transport (in effect based on London’s unique conditions) to one which can be fine tuned locally to take into account the capacity that may be available in very different geographies. We don’t want public transport which is too busy to be safe in some areas – but at the same time, it makes no sense for public transport to be running empty in other areas whilst the roads fill up with cars bringing road casualties and air pollution in its wake.

More widely, the top down approach to the response to COVID-19 leads to other problems too. Perhaps this was most starkly illustrated recently by the withholding of information about the full details of local COVID-19 infection data from those local authorities and Directors of Public Health who need that data to ensure local responses are as effective as possible. On transport, this top down approach has settled down into a consistent pattern which consumes vast amounts of time which could be spent more productively. First comes the speculation, probing and rehearsing different scenarios whilst we wait for key decisions to be made. Then an announcement comes largely out of the blue on a key issue (such as making face coverings compulsory on public transport). Often the announcement lacks all the guidance and information needed to implement it. So then there is the second guessing, probing and speculative implementation of policies at short notice whilst we await the full details. Then the details emerge – and then there is a process of reorienting policy and delivery around that. And so it goes on. This is time wasted that could also be spent looking ahead and planning in a more considered way for what the next operational challenge of the COVID-19 response could be. It’s also not effective overall either – as the UK’s poor record on its coronavirus response in comparison to other countries shows.

The money

The additional COVID-19 money runs out for light rail and bus (in England outside London) in less than a month’s time. Emergency funding for private operators of national rail services runs out in September. Transport for London’s additional funding runs out in mid-October. There are different rules and timescales for different modes – but all the funding deals were time limited and they are all approaching the end point. The funding deal for local bus and tram (outside London) being the first to expire. If the past is any guide to the future, then HMT will insist on taking it to the wire and find anyway it can to get public transport used to the idea of starting to come off financial life support in advance of the Autumn (when the hope is life will have settled down to a new normal which is closer to pre COVID-19 life than it is to the national lockdown). The trouble is, that with Government advising people to steer clear of a socially distanced public transport network, fares income has collapsed and it’s only the additional COVID-19 financial life support which is keeping public transport alive. And even when and if the messaging changes about the use of public transport and capacity is restored, it’s hard to see patronage returning to its pre COVID-19 rates any time soon, if ever (and certainly not by the Autumn).

Meanwhile, there is no money yet for the additional costs of getting kids to school in September, the Government is still expecting transport authorities to continue to pay bus operators for concessionary trips that aren’t being made and Merseytravel hasn’t seen any funding for its Merseyrail Electrics franchise.

Much angst lies ahead on funding – but much time wasted too on trying to keep the show on the road on the basis of short-term, cliff edge deals and complicated one-size fits all funding packages (this also compounds the time already wasted on operational issues set out above). This is why we continue to make the case for additional funding for bus to be devolved to transport authorities. We can then deploy it alongside light rail funding in an integrated way that meets local needs whilst at the same time replace a system which means we pay for bus journeys that aren’t being made with a system where we can support bus networks that are being provided.

The future

The big task ahead is to fuse a green recovery from COVID-19 with the decarbonisation agenda in a way that makes better places. The Committee on Climate Change recently reported to Parliament on how it thinks this should happen with its top five investment priorities being:

  1. Low-carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future.
  2. Tree planting, peatland restoration, and green infrastructure.
  3. Energy networks must be strengthened for the net-zero energy transformation in order to support electrification of transport and heating.
  4. Infrastructure to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely.
  5. Moving towards a circular economy.

The opportunity that the lockdown brought to address number four by reallocating road space to active travel has been one of the most positive aspects of the last few months. But there are big challenges ahead in retaining and developing the levels of lockdown modal shift to active travel and in maintaining the road space reallocation momentum (including turning the temporary and rudimentary into long-term quality). But leaders at the local and national level have got religion about active travel – and that’s half the battle.

We are gearing up on number three on the list – as we need a coordinated approach to the electrification of transport (rail, bus, car, e-bikes) which integrates approaches to both the vehicles and the infrastructure to get the juice where it needs to be. City regions should have a key role to play in this and we are working with other bodies – like the Energy Systems Catapult and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership – to ensure that they do.

Transport can also play a role in priorities one and two – which we explored in our Making the connections on climate report looking at good practice from the UK and the wider world on how transport authorities and providers can decarbonise their own estate whilst improving its resilience through green infrastructure.

We can build back better from this crisis and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether we aim to play our full part.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

Into the unknown


UTG Tram and light rail2

As tough as it gets for public transport

This is as tough as it gets for public transport. The Government’s decision to trigger a restart last night (Sunday), that begins this morning, has run ahead of the guidance on how public transport should respond. Leaving us with not a chance of being able to prepare in a consistent way to make the best fist of what is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. That challenge being to run the biggest service you can, whilst protecting staff and seeking to ensure passengers keep two metres from each other.

Not only did we have no clear guidance from Government in advance on the detail of how they want us to achieve this – at present we don’t even know how much detail there is going to be. On top of that (other than for rail), we don’t have any detail on what the funding package will be to support the ramp up in services. Given that COVID-19 transmission is more likely in enclosed spaces, and where people are in close proximity for prolonged periods of time, it was always going to be particularly difficult for public transport to manage the risks in its preparation for restart. But trying to plan in the information vacuum of recent weeks has made that task even harder and contributed to public transport now being portrayed as the pariah mode of transport – the one to be avoided. In the week ahead we will do our level best to collectively respond as adroitly as we can to the hand we have been dealt – but it’s difficult to see how the result isn’t going to be messy (at best).

The dam breaks on active travel

In stark contrast to the gloom around public transport, is the unconfined joy that permeated Twitter over the dam breaking at the weekend on Government support (fiscal, policy and verbal) for getting more people walking and cycling. However, compared to the intractable problems on public transport as a result of COVID-19, the obstacles to the roll out of temporary road space reallocation are much more manageable. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how you use cheap, basic immediate road space reallocation measures to prepare the way for more expensive longer term street redesign, done in quality. And in doing so, how you also lock in capacity for buses (the importance of which many green commentators and advocacy bodies seem to have forgotten about in the excitement).

Let the circle be unbroken

In the many weeks since this all began I’ve been in innumerable telecons but not one so far where there was Department for Transport reps from rail and from local transport at the same time. This is symptomatic of a wider compartmentalised approach where what seems to be seen as the elite public transport mode (rail) gets both a privileged dialogue and funding deal with Government (national rail got its funding deal the day lockdown was announced – whilst TfL is still waiting). Meanwhile, local public transport trails in at the back of the queue. This compartmentalised approach makes no sense when passengers experience rail as part of a wider public transport system in different areas and when a common approach to social distancing, service ramp ups and messaging to the public is going to be critical at this very difficult time for public transport as a whole.

The other circle that needs to be closed soon is on travel demand management in terms of joining up whatever Government is saying to business at the national level and what we need to be saying to major employers and destinations in our areas… especially with the danger of numerous mini-peaks occurring as highly constrained public transport attempts to cope with peaks in demand at different times from different major employers and destinations.

Personally, I am baffled as to why the Government has triggered more transport demand in advance of publishing the guidance on how this should be handled. But this is where we find ourselves and as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether our task over the next few weeks will be to deal with the consequences in the best way we can for our people, our passengers and the places we serve.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group