Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: Part one

pteg has been going for far longer than ten years, but it was a decade ago when the PTEs decided that to work more effectively as a network, and to punch their weight in Whitehall they needed a Support Unit to bring greater focus. I have been there throughout (first as Assistant Director and then Director). In the first of a series of three blog posts, here are some personal reflections on those ten years.

Top ten highlights of the last ten years

  • Building our reputation and effectiveness: working with a great team at the Support Unit, and the wider PTE network, to turn pteg into a force to be reckoned with that has saved our members millions.
  • Assembling an evidence base that got results in the 2013 Spending Review: Several years of painstakingly filling the gaps in our funding case paid off.
  • Local Transport Act 2008: A right old slog to get workable legislation on buses – but we did it!
  • Our ‘think tank’ role in finding policies that work for new and emerging issues: From young people to Total Transport, and from public health to social inclusion we have been ahead of the game in clearly setting out the challenges ahead and the policies that can work.
  • The rise and rise of rail: Fifty years ago the future for the mode looked grim – now there’s an all-party consensus behind it – backed up with sustained investment and with HS2 beckoning.
  • Manchester Metrolink: The UK has its first comprehensive modern tram network – and done with style.
  • Merseyrail devolution: From Miseryline to successful network – devolution works right here right now!
  • 2008 pteg Support Unit team at Barbara Castle train naming

    Barbara Castle commemoration: with (L-R) Saila Acton and Jonathan Bray (there from the start of the SU and still here!), Tim Larner (former Director) and Louisa Moore (former Policy Advisor)

    Barbara Castle commemoration: Naming a train after the Secretary of State for Transport who established the PTEs and writing the story of the 1968 Transport Act that she brought in to do it.

  • Cycling goes mainstream: ten years ago cycling was right at the margins of transport policy and the public consciousness. Not any more – something’s changed. It feels like we are now on the verge of a big shift to the bike.
  • Smart cities / smart transport: Smart cities powered by smart grids and made functional through smart transport systems, are moving from the realms of conjecture to reality.

Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: London calling

The ice age

New Labour was in charge for most of the decade but transport wasn’t a priority for Blair or Brown. They ticked the no publicity box. Or as former Transport SoS, Alistair Darling, recently summed up this approach – ‘transport is best when it is boring’. By and large Ministers came and went without leaving much of an impression. There were a few exceptions from those that just read out the civil service briefs. An honourable mention for Douglas Alexander who grasped the nettle on bus regulation legislation – which eventually led to a much more workable set of bus powers than that which the officials made sure was thoroughly booby trapped and inoperable in the 2000 Transport Act. Labour saved the best till last with Lord Adonis. He was fascinated by the brief, saw no reason why he shouldn’t do something with it – and he did. Setting a pattern of hyperactivity on the detail that in some ways set a template for Norman Baker. But we didn’t know we were well off in that there was money to spend on transport. Something that came to a shuddering halt after the banking crisis. But the overwhelming feeling was one of a largely ignored opportunity.

After the crash

Norman Baker MP speaking at a pteg event

Norman Baker MP has bought renewed energy to the local transport brief

The Coalition came in and set to their task with some gusto. In the name of getting public spending under control many of the engines of transport investment were switched off with schemes stopped in their tracks and local transport spend outside London dramatically reduced. Now the engines have been switched on again and credit to them – evidence does count with this Government. Local government was lax in setting out the evidence for the benefits of local transport spending pre-2010 and paid the price. We’ve plugged that gap now and seen the benefits of doing so flow in the 2013 Spending Review. Transport has also been home to pragmatist Secretary of States since 2010 with Norman Baker putting more energy into the Local Transport brief than any previous Minister in the last decade. He’s also been given a relatively free hand to push and nudge local transport policy in a progressive direction – particularly on cycling.

The group think of the metropolitan policy elite

One prevailing frustration over the decade has been dealing with the stunning level of ignorance in London about the political and economic geography of the world beyond the M25. Especially galling now that London runs itself whilst Whitehall rules the rest of England. But not having a clue about the difference between, say, Greater Manchester and the city of Manchester – or not knowing the first thing about how local government works outside London – is not seen as any hindrance whatsoever to being able to make policy. There is no requirement on a civil servant who is in charge of decision making about the regions to have any real idea about how transport or governance works outside London. Time and time again we have had to explain the basics. All of which is one reason why England outside London is subject to successive policies on governance (under this government and the last one) which have little reference to previous policies, creating layers upon layers of initiatives which are rarely fully implemented or conclusive.

As well as their shoulder shrugging ‘so what’ ignorance about the provinces they rule – the other problem with the metropolitan policy elite is groupthink. The big ideas for transport policy over the last ten years have been road user charging and mayors. And once the idea is established as groupthink it becomes the answer to everything. Road user charging is a prime example. Putting aside the arguments about whether or not road user charging is a good or a bad thing, the problem was that the obsession with road user charging ended up wasting a lot of time which only ended when the concept was tested to electoral destruction in Manchester and Edinburgh. The Metropolitan policy elite just wouldn’t listen until then. There was a prolonged period when meeting after meeting with the DfT always ended up with the DfT saying you can have what you want – but only if you introduce road user charging. A more savvy approach would have been to give local transport authorities outside London more of the flexibility they need to tackle congestion and raise transport funding locally – of which road user charging is one option. That lesson has kind of been learned now but at the expense of some wasted years.

Cars entering congestion charging zone (c )Transport for London

Road user charging: a game changer for London, more flexibility needed elsewhere

Dizzy London

In many ways this decade has all been about London. High investment levels and progressive policy change has led to the  transformation of just about every aspect of the capital’s transport network for the better.  London was of course the biggest beneficiary of this but London changed the terms of the debate on urban transport policy for everybody else. Or to be more precise the man who brought the most leadership to transport policy in the last decade did. And that’s Ken Livingstone. The three big game changers that are down to him are:

  • Defying Westminster politicians of all stripes – and just about everybody else – to introduce road user charging in London
  • Ramping up the London bus network to transform it beyond recognition into arguably the best urban bus network in the world
  • Using an effective combination of charm and menaces to get the Whitehall machine behind a massive investment programme for public transport in London

All of this established a new consensus that a high quality public transport network, coupled with traffic restraint measures, could change a city for the better – including supporting a dynamic economy. This seems obvious now but it wasn’t then. It’s hard to see any other Mayoral candidate at that time pursuing such radical policies with such intent – and delivering them. The safer option would be to have played the percentages, to not introduce road user charging and to have been even-handed across the modes. If that had happened the jury would still have been out on whether devolution was the right way forward for transport; whether a world class city needed a world class public transport system; whether you could ever introduce radical measures on traffic restraint in the UK; and on much else that is now taken for granted. This bravado and ambition also created the space for his successor to continue the broad thrust of what Ken Livingstone set in motion but with a marked flourish around cycling. It’s also a model that others have noted – perhaps most noticeably in our patch in Manchester. If you want to do big things, look and act big.

Jonathan Bray

Read Part two in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ focusing on the unstoppable force of devolution. >

Read Part three in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ which looks at the way we work and the way cities will work in the future. >

pteg visits…Dales Integrated Transport Alliance (DITA)

The pteg team outside the Grassington Hub

The pteg team visit the Grassington Hub (L-R: Rebecca Fuller, Saila Acton and Jonathan Bray – all pteg; Ann Wild, Grassington Hub; Randall Ghent, DITA; Pedro Abrantes, pteg)

On the 7th August, the pteg team travelled from Leeds to the beautiful Yorkshire Dales to visit Dales Integrated Transport Alliance (DITA). DITA is a community-led group of individuals and organisations who want to get better transport in the rural area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. DITA was formed to assist Metro (West Yorkshire PTE) to deliver the ‘Connecting the Dales’ project which secured £1.1 million from the Department for Transport’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF).

An on-train briefing

Our day began with a train journey to Skipton station (‘Gateway to the Dales’) during which time Connecting the Dales Project Leader Randall Ghent was able to fill us in on some more of the background to DITA.

He told us about the four strands of DITA’s work:

1. Local transport needs assessment – including a baseline survey of 1,200 local people conducted by sustainable transport charity, Sustrans complemented by a Visitor Survey to capture the travel needs of the many tourists who flock to the Dales.

2. Integrated service development – including trialling of new transport services; subsidies for bus (and sometimes rail) services; a fares initiative for young people; and improved coordination of the existing transport network through a network of local ‘hubs’.

3. Active Travel support – including through the hubs; printed leaflets; education work; support for cycle paths; and electric bike hire. Future plans include a series of accessible circular walks as well as activities linked to next year’s Tour De France Grand Départ, which will take place in Yorkshire.

4. Customer-facing marketing and information – delivered through the local hubs, online and via printed materials.

Randall is keen to stress the ‘bottom-up’ nature of the project – this is very much a community-led scheme which accepts bids for funding from local operators and communities who have identified a transport need and a sustainable approach to solving it.

Your Dales Hub Grassington

Train journey and initial briefing complete, we hop on a Pride of the Dales bus service to Grassington, which calls right outside Skipton Station. Later, we would visit the Pride of the Dales base in the village, however, our first stop is Your Dales Hub Grassington, one of the eight hubs across the Dales started with funding from DITA and a key delivery mechanism for DITA’s work.

Bespoke hub leaflets

Bespoke hub leaflets

Each hub provides the local community and visitors to the area with advice on all forms of transport. They can make bookings, access real time information and pick up helpful leaflets. All hubs have their own bespoke leaflet outlining travel options in the area – these are distributed to every address locally, often together with the parish magazine. Indeed, the idea is for hubs to have a hyper-local marketing and outreach role, building community capacity and ownership.

In common with all the hubs, Grassington’s is located within an existing community facility – in this case, the village library. Other locations include Tourist Information Centres, Community Offices, a museum and even the front room of a Bed and Breakfast!

With funding tight, multi-functional spaces – and people – are essential. The LSTF funding allows each hub to pay for a manager for one day per week. This person usually performs a number of other roles, with funding from a range of sources. In Grassington, that person is Ann Wild who we meet in a small office at the back of the library, together with Helen Flynn, Chair of DITA.

Ann provides advice on transport via the hub and works closely with the community and local operators to gather information on local transport services and needs. In common with every hub manager, she maintains a page on the DITA website for the area she covers, providing up-to-date transport information for Grassington. Together with the pages for the other hubs, the website provides a comprehensive picture of transport services across the Dales. Ann also maintains the twitter feed for the hub @GrassingtonHub (you can also follow the Dales Connect project on twitter @DalesConnect).

As well as transport, Ann’s role covers community development, outreach and fundraising (including submitting bids to funding bodies, a regular village movie night and a photocopying and printing service for local businesses).

Helping Hands

When we meet, Ann is in the midst of applying to the Big Lottery Reaching Communities fund for funding for a coordinator for the hub’s Helping Hands scheme that provides transport to medical appointments via a network of 40 volunteer drivers who use their own cars. The nearest big hospital is a 44 mile round trip from Grassington.

Given the distances and costs involved, transport to health facilities is a big issue in rural areas, particularly for those who do not qualify for free patient transport. Even those who do qualify experience a service that is over-stretched and can involve long journey times and waiting times at either end.

Ann and Helen agree that local providers could deliver a better, more responsive service but that they struggle to bid for NHS contracts. Helen tells us that the Social Value Act should mean that bid evaluation takes into account other factors that add value (e.g. that the bidder is a social enterprise) – however, the legislation is still new and seems not to have filtered through to decision making. There is also as yet untapped potential to consolidate hospital appointments to make patient transport more viable in rural areas.

It has been a long held ambition of DITA to get local transport and NHS stakeholders together to discuss the issues of access to healthcare and of more sustainable funding options. The Helping Hands service, for example, is reliant entirely on the goodwill of volunteers and donations from those who use the service. It would be in the interests of the NHS to support such schemes which, among other things, help avoid missed appointments. This is something we too have noted in our ‘Total Transport’ report of 2011.

One Way £1 for under 19s

Next on our itinerary is a visit to the Pride of the Dales bus garage, base for a small fleet of vehicles providing bus services between Buckden in the North, and Skipton and Ilkley in the South. The services are provided on behalf of North Yorkshire County Council. Here we meet Richard Dean, who – following the multi-functional theme – is both mechanic and occasional bus driver for Pride of the Dales.

The 'One Way £1' logo

The ‘One Way £1’ logo is displayed on all participating bus services

Richard fills us in on another strand of DITA’s work – the trial of a ‘One Way £1’ scheme for under 19s. As the name suggests, this scheme allows young people to travel for £1 on their outward journey and £1 on their return journey when travelling within the Dales area. This represents a considerable saving on the usual fares and is designed to make bus travel easier and more affordable for young people. During term-time, the scheme applies on weekday evenings after 5pm and at any time over the weekends. In the school holidays, the scheme is available at all times.

The scheme fits the simple, flat and consistent model for child fares that we know works (see, for example our ‘Moving On’ report) and is very popular with young people themselves – indeed, the local Youth Council were actively involved in developing this initiative. Since launching in October 2012, patronage among young people has grown – one operator is already intending to take forward the scheme commercially after the DITA funding runs out in October this year.

Evaluating success

Next up, a further chance to discuss the work of DITA with Randall, Ann and Helen over a wholesome lunch at The Retreat, a vegetarian café in the village. Conversation turns to the importance of evaluation and DITA’s plans to collect evidence of effectiveness for each strand of the project – evidence that will be vital in securing future funding for the scheme whether as a whole or for individual elements. We noted that the best practice guidance on LSTF monitoring and evaluation, produced for pteg by AECOM, might prove a useful resource as this work progresses.

After lunch, there was time to stock up on souvenir fudge before heading to the National Park Centre just outside the village which also serves as a small bus station. From here it was back on-board a Pride of the Dales bus to Skipton followed by a comfortable ride on the electrified Airedale line back to Leeds.

All in all a fascinating visit to an organisation that is very much led by the communities it serves and as such, delivers initiatives that meet the needs of residents and visitors alike. We would like to thank Randall Ghent for organising the visit and Ann Wild, Helen Flynn and Richard Dean for spending time with us on the day.

Rebecca Fuller

The Spending Review: Everything to play for

The last spending review gave local transport spending outside London a good hiding. It lacked the political clout and built-in funding commitments that applied to London and national rail – the evidence base for the benefits of local transport spending also had too many gaps. Worse for the big regional conurbations was that by accident or design a significant shift has also taken place within local transport spending as decision after decision on funding formulas redistributed funding from congested urban areas in the regions (where it would do most good) to quieter rural areas – or the wider London commuter belt.

Will June’s spending review be more of the same? Well if it is it won’t be because of the evidence base – which we have systematically upgraded since the last spending review, and encapsulated it on the www.transportworks.org website.

Transport Works website screen shot

We’ve encapsulated the case for investing in transport on the Transport Works website at http://www.transportworks.org

From our report from Jacobs on the benefits of small public transport schemes to our recent ‘Case for the Urban Bus report’ we have made it our business to build a defence of local transport spending that George Graham would have been proud of. If there’s some big gaps in the evidence base for local transport spending then neither HMT nor DfT has told us what these are.

Resource spending: a three-way dogfight

Which brings us back to politics. On resource spending there’s a three-way dogfight. The cash avalanche from Whitehall into London’s transport system started when London showed it was willing to put its hand in its own pocket with the congestion charge. Since then The UK’s resident world city has been adroit in ensuring the national public funding that has headed TfL’s way has been well spent in renewing the fundamentals whilst making some transformatory and decisive shifts in the whole direction of transport policy – not least of which is on cycling.

But the public spending squeeze has led to a change in approach from London with a stress on the potential for the capital to raise more of its own funding from its pumped up, city state tax base. This is also to demonstrate to Whitehall that London ‘gets it’ that when public spending is being squeezed London needs to get its own round in at the public spending saloon bar.

Meanwhile national rail’s resource spend could only be reduced through unpalatable ideological choices on the current structure of the industry or unpalatable political choices (booking office closures, service cuts or strike-provoking moves on staff numbers, pay or conditions).

All of which puts BSOG (Bus Service Operators Grant) for the rest of the country in the firing line. In the past support for bus services would have been a soft touch but the case for public spending on bus subsidies is robust and new alliances are being forged in its support – as our recent Westminster ‘Case for the Urban Bus” event showed.

Speakers from the pteg Urban Bus event

New alliances are being forged in support of bus, as our recent ‘Case for the Urban Bus’ event showed. Pictured (L-R): Konstanze Scharring, Director of Policy, SMMT; Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive, Campaign for Better Transport; David Brown, Chair, pteg; Pedro Abrantes, Economist, pteg; Claire Haigh, Chief Executive, Greener Journeys; Dr Janet Atherton, President, Association of Directors of Public Health; and Tony Travers, Director, LSE. Picture by Andrew Wiard andrew@reportphotos.com

Capital spending: small is beautiful

Meanwhile on capital funding there’s a more secure consensus around the importance of capital spending on transport to support growth. The question is what kind of capital spend? There’s something primal in politicians’ brains that triggers an urge for road building whenever there’s a recession. Perhaps it’s the trace memories of the 1930s and the heroic images of the New Deal where you could go down to the labour exchange and give men picks and shovels and send them off to build an Interstate. Whatever it is, this urge can be clearly seen in the transport spending figures where after an initial big cut in national roads spending in 2010 there was a change of mind in the 2011 Autumn Statement when spending on national roads suddenly shot up again.

But as alluring as big new roads are to national politicians, the economy’s faltering progress and with planning horizons shrinking towards the next election – the case for local transport spending outside London could benefit. This is because small can be beautiful when you want schemes that can be up and running quickly. Road maintenance, bus priority, station improvements, cycle schemes – they can all create and sustain jobs right now to make them happen, and they can deliver rapid benefits in reduced congestion and better access to employment. Plus many of these schemes formed part of rejected competition bids which were ready to roll and can therefore be easily reanimated if funding becomes available.

The big questions

So the big questions that the spending review will answer or fudge: Will the primal political appeal of new roads lead to a further splurge in national roads spend at the expense of local transport? Will national rail remain the great untouchable of transport spending? Will the Treasury wake up to the fact that whilst government talks up spending on cities the memo isn’t getting through when it comes to decisions on funding distribution formula which are actually taking cash out of congested urban areas. Will having a now largely uncontested evidence base for local transport spending outside London result in the better funding deal it deserves? Will London pull it off again?

And of course there’s a longer game beyond this spending review. Whatever happens this time round, the evidence base and the credibility of public spending on buses and wider urban local transport spend is now in a much better place. Plus London’s moves towards greater financial independence could also benefit Britain’s other urban areas. It’s been two steps forward, one step backwards and one step sideways on devolution of funding and decision making for the regional cities so far – but Boris Johnson can go toe to toe with HMT on funding freedoms in a way that the regional cities just can’t. Everything to play for!

Jonathan Bray