Five things I learned at Labour Party Conference for urban transport

1.About towns

For many years the dominant argument has been that all policy focus should be on cities, as they are where the economic action is. Now that hegemony is breaking down. Thinktanks like Centre for Towns and Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy, have been challenging the implicit assumption (and were doing so across Labour Party conference) that the best it gets for towns is ‘trickle down’ of some growth from booming cities. The worsening plight of many towns is also seen as a factor in Brexit, the rise of the far right and now electoral mathematics. All signified by the way that Labour’s new campaign ads now no longer focus on their new core vote of big city students and their tuition fees. Instead the imagery is rows of terraces and shuttered up small town high streets. The places which could decide the next election. As for transport and towns we are currently finalising our own contribution to the debate with a new forthcoming report on ‘About towns – how transport can help towns thrive’.

2.Bus and rail plans

As they have already set out, Labour’s plans for buses is to back those authorities that go for franchising or municipalisation with funding for free travel for young people. The rail plans are essentially the same as they were too with a new national rail body which will absorb Network Rail and train operations but with a regional/devolved nations dimension to allow for rail devolution. However, this would have been a slow motion process as it could have taken some time for all the franchises to fail or expire. The big change at Labour party conference is the news that this could now be sped up via a unit in the Treasury set up to find ways of renationalising utilities more rapidly. For rail a fast forward nationalisation would, for example, enable the recreation of a single inter city network again which could then be promoted and developed as a single entity.

3.Economic democracy

John McDonnell wants to bring a greater element of democracy to economy and to industry (be it public or private) with more worker and staff involvement in decision making. Easier to do with those industries that you directly control though – so most likely to be applied in some form to the new national rail body. But clear implications too across the wider transport and local government sector.

4.Road building piggy bank

Inter urban road building has seen a surge in funding recently – so much so that delivery of a programme on this scale and on these timescales looks unlikely – even if it was a sensible use of resources. The glut in funding for roads has been given a further boost from hypothecation of VED. Labour has spotted this as a funding source for its bus plans in particular and a way of defending themselves against the ‘unaffordable price tag’ allegation.

5.Preston

There is going to be a lot more talk of Preston as the exemplar of how the decisions that the local public sector make (local authorities, the health service, the education sector) can be used to support the local economy. This means making sure that local firms, which support the local economy and provide good local jobs, can be in a position to compete effectively for the contracts these big ‘anchor’ institutions let. This is what Preston has to some extent already been doing and what Labour wants to see more of. This also ties in with their towns and economic democracy agendas. To some extent this has already been filtering more into the transport sector in recent years from the choices made on train catering on some parts of the rail network (most noticeably in Scotland) to the greater efforts now being made to ensure that everything from HS2 to the extension of the Midland Metro to the Black Country is seen as an opportunity to build local skills and the local supply chain. This trend towards favouring the local is likely to become more marked in the years ahead (whoever is in power).

Labour policy has certainly moved on significantly from the last election (where the manifesto wasn’t so far removed from that of Ed Miliband) with John McDonnell’s team where the action is on domestic policy development. We now wait to see how the Conservatives respond next week in Birmingham.

The biggest bargain in transport policy?

Bus crossing tram line in Manchester

The urban bus – a highly effective social and transport policy

Is the urban bus the biggest bargain in transport policy? There’s certainly a strong case to be made – as our new report (‘The Case for the Urban Bus – The Economic and Social Value of Bus Networks in the Metropolitan Areas’) shows.

The key to the exceptional value for public money that the urban bus represents boils down to the fact that the urban bus is a highly effective social policy which also has economic and transport benefits. And looking at it from the other end of the telescope it’s a highly effective transport policy which at the same time has considerable social benefits.

There’s not so many forms of public expenditure that achieve so many multiple and overlapping policy objectives for every pound spent. A policy that gets young people to education, the jobless to jobs, and tackles isolation for older and disabled people. Part of the solution to problems like these that will ultimately incur major costs to society if not tackled. And at the same time as it does this it, it also reduces congestion for motorists and provides the access that city centre employers and retailers rely on. Not bad!

Over £2.5 billion in economic benefits

The report sets out all these inter-linked benefits in detail – and, crucially, puts some hard numbers against those benefits. It finds that in PTE areas alone bus networks are estimated to generate over £2.5 billion in economic benefits by providing access to opportunities; reducing pollution and accidents; and improving productivity.

The report also finds that specific bus funding streams generate significant economic benefits:

  • BSOG generates at least £2.80 of benefits for every £1 of public money spent – over a quarter of these benefits go to other road users due to buses’ role in reducing road congestion.
  • The national concessionary fares scheme generates £1.50 of benefits for every £1 of public money spent – a high return for a social measure.
  • The non-commercial bus services that local authorities support can generate benefits in excess of £3 for every £1 of public money spent. Most of these benefits are to the bus users who depend on these services to access opportunity (like jobs, education and healthcare).

The report also finds that because of the local nature of bus services and operations, much of the bus industry’s turnover (in excess of £5 billion a year) is ploughed back into regional economies through the supply chain, and because the people who work on local bus services live and spend in their local areas.

The report highlights the key role that urban bus services play in tackling social exclusion – from linking jobseekers to jobs, to getting young people into education and training, to providing a way out of social isolation for older people.

Without the bus the report finds that ‘our cities would be more divided, the poorest and the most vulnerable would be more isolated and severed from the opportunities that many take for granted, and so much talent that dynamic and prosperous cities need would go to waste as training, education and jobs would be unreachable for many young people.’

Although this report focuses on the largest urban areas it should absolutely not be inferred that this means that there is a not a strong case for supporting rural bus services. Many PTE areas contain substantial rural hinterlands and we know just how important the rural buses we support are for keeping communities connected, for the rural tourism economy, and to tackle major problems of social exclusion in rural areas. However, this report we concentrates on the specific urban case because a good bus network is so important to urban areas it deserves this detailed analysis of the specific benefits that urban bus services bring.

A strengthened evidence base

Since the last spending review (where the collective failings of the bus industry, the DfT, and local government on assembling the evidence base on buses were exposed and punished) there has been a concerted effort, led by Greener Journeys, Campaign for Better Transport and pteg, to systematically fill the gaps in that evidence base through a series of complementary and overlapping reports. There’s more to come but the evidence base has now been thoroughly transformed. It is robust and battle ready and my sense is that decision makers are now taking it more seriously. However, there’s a long way to go. Public funding for the bus has some unique challenges in that it comes from a variety of sources, and in some ways the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) is more important for bus funding than the Department of Transport as CLG take the decisions on local government funding which ultimately determine a big slab of bus funding. And the bus is far from the forefront of CLG thinking. Bus funding is also highly revenue dependent at a time when capital rather than revenue spending is favoured by Government.

However the evidence base is there for the bus. The task now is to continue to take it to key decision makers and to find some collective asks of Government on bus funding whilst accepting that there will remain fundamental differences between many incumbent bus operators and local government on the deregulation / regulation issue. It can be done and it needs to be done if we are going to get a better result from this Spending Review for the bus this time, than we did last time around.

Jonathan Bray