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.

2016 in transport

2016 has been a rollercoaster year in politics, entertainment and sports. We’ve had a referendum, a change of government, and a US election, to name just a few things. For me, this has been my first year at UTG (I joined in May), I’ve learned so much and lots of interesting things have been going on. So, I’m going to try and wrap up the big things that have happened in transport into this post.

Internally, it’s been a big year at UTG. In January 2016, Transport for London became full members, and what had been pteg became the Urban Transport Group. And since then we’ve gone from strength to strength, drawing in new policy areas such as taxis and private hire vehicles, and tackling big questions, like the value of emerging data for transport and the role of transport in delivering inclusive growth.

The Buses Bill

The Buses Bill has been a big theme in transport this year, with its passage through the House of Lords, and looks set to move into the House of Commons next year. The Buses Bill will make it easier for local transport authorities to franchise networks of buses, allowing bus services to be provided as they are in London elsewhere. This will deliver improvements for passengers and integration of ticketing. You can find out more about our work on the Buses Bill here including our Bus Services Bill FAQs.

bus-in-huddersfield

Data

Big data, open data, transport data, it’s all in vogue! On my second day at UTG we held a workshop with the Future Cities Catapult to discuss emerging data and transport, to try and tease out the opportunities and challenges around maximising the potential of transport data. Following this, we produced our ‘Getting Smart on Data’ report, which offers some recommendations of ways to overcome some of these challenges and barriers in order to utilise the wealth of emerging data.

Air Quality

Air quality has been making headlines this year, particularly as the health implications of NOx and particulate emissions become ever more apparent. Some European cities have been making bold statement to address air pollution, with Paris banning cars and making public transport free to use during high pollution events. Sadiq Khan has made significant promises to tackle air pollution in London, including doubling funding to tackle the problem and Clean Air Zones are being imposed on a number of English cities, so this issue looks likely to remain at the top of transport agendas for some time to come.

Inclusive growth

Theresa May has made it clear that her government intends to deliver inclusive growth, including through the establishment of the Inclusive Growth Economy Unit in October 2016. Inclusive Growth has been on the agenda for other organisations, with the RSA opening the Inclusive Growth Commission. Inclusivity and transport is an area that UTG have been exploring for a long time, including examining the role for transport in accessing employment, the importance of transport for young people and the role transport plays in economic development. Check out our response to the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission to find out more.

Party conferences

As UTG, we attend both the Labour and Conservative party conferences. This year, we asked people to share their priorities for transport in cities, and you can read these blog posts to find out more about what came up at Labour and the Conservatives. There were many common themes across both conferences, with people asking for better cycling infrastructure, improved public transport and raising concerns about air quality, amongst many others.

conference-stand

What’s clear is that there are many different challenges facing the transport system, but transport also offers wider social and economic opportunities. Let’s see what 2017 has to offer.