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.

What the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport

Here are five key takeaways, based on an initial run through, of what the Transport Decarbonisation Plan means for urban transport.

1. It accelerates the shift in tone and emphasis in urban transport policy and delivery towards active travel and public transport and makes moves to lock this in (in a quantifiable way) through resuscitating previously out of favour Local Transport Plans (LTPs) as the vehicle for doing so. So ‘LTPs will…need to set out how local areas will deliver ambitious quantifiable carbon reductions in transport.’

This will be part of a wider pincer movement through consolidation of local transport funding. Importantly, the plan states: ‘For future local transport funding, we will transition to a state where this is conditional on local areas being able to demonstrate how they will reduce emissions over a portfolio of transport investments through LTPs, which will become a focus of engagement between central and local government about future funding.’  

A further element underpinning this will be a green shift in the guidance and rules on how schemes are appraised. Particularly interesting is that it signals a desire to  move away from a ‘predict and provide’ approach to transport planning towards planning that starts from the outcomes communities want to achieve and providing the transport solutions to deliver those (‘vision and validate’). This would be a ‘revolution in the head’ for transport planning if it’s followed through on.

2. The ambitions for world class cycling infrastructure everywhere and a big shift to bus (with more, cheaper and greener services everywhere) are what we want too. The Government has also put money behind the bar for more spending on both (£5 billion in total). This sounds a lot and is a lot. But given the scale of the ambition it won’t be enough – especially on bus where the starting point is declining patronage and services and high fares.

So all eyes on the multi-year spending review in the Autumn. If DfT loses out to other Gov departments, and if local transport loses out to other parts of the DfT (as it did in the last spending review) then buses and active travel provision can still improve but not at the pace or scale necessary to meet the objectives of the TDP.

3. Tech optimism and tech fixes are preferred to hard decisions. We can have our cake (more travel, more roads and more flights) and eat it too (by decarbonising everything that moves). For urban transport one hard decision that is dodged is around the relative cost of motoring and public transport.

The cold hard stats show the relative cost of public transport has been rising fast compared with the cost of motoring in recent years. Although there is talk in the Plan about cheaper bus fares, there is only a brief veiled reference on the other side of the equation – vehicle taxation – where it says: ‘we will need to ensure that the tax system encourages the uptake of EVs and that revenue from motoring taxes keeps pace with this change, to ensure we can continue to fund the first-class public services and infrastructure that people and families across the UK expect.’

Of course it is also right that we do press ahead and at pace on the decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets – and solid progress is being made. However, it’s disappointing that the approach to decarbonising vehicle fleets is still modally divided, focussed on the vehicles rather than how we get sufficient green energy to where it needs to be to power those vehicles.

It also doesn’t recognise sufficiently that if all urban vehicles (buses, vans, fire engines, cars) are to be zero emission – and therefore have access to the green power they need – then city regions need to be at the top table when decisions are being made about how to make all this happen.

4. The bloated £27bn national roads programme which is set to pump more and more traffic into urban areas looks increasingly vulnerable. Gone is all the macho rhetoric about ‘biggest road building programme since the Romans’ and in comes ‘nothing to see here’ – it’s all about enhancements, renewals, tree planting and cycle lanes. The TDP says there will be a review but is cagey on the detail. It could and should be the beginning of a more common sense approach to the use of the £27 billion in a climate crisis.

5. The car is king in terms of journey share but in the UK occupancy rates are low. So the maths says if you increase car occupancy, even by a small percentage, you can make a significant cut in carbon emissions. The TDP signals that it gets this and that more needs to be done to make this happen but recognises that more thinking needs to be done on how.

The TDP could be the start of a process of bringing vehicle sharing from the margins to a more central position in transport policy which is positive. However it misses a trick on this (and more widely on other topics in the Plan including decarbonisation of urban vehicle fleets) on how the public sector (education, healthcare, local government and so on) could be taking more of a lead. After all this is a lever that the Government should more easily be able to pull.

All in all, the TDP should perhaps be seen as the latest stage (and a consolidation of recent progress) of a journey for greening urban transport policy which had been long overdue, but remarkably rapid once it got underway. For example, it’s hard to believe now but a decade ago cycling was at the far margins of urban transport policy and investment priorities. It couldn’t have been any more fringe. But now it’s front and centre.

The TDP also sets the stage for the tougher decisions that are still to come – most notably on taxation and pricing of travel, and on how the totality of available transport funding is prioritised.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group