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. >

Freight in the City Regions: A Sustainable Vision for 2030

In this special guest post, Chris Rowland, Director at MDS Transmodal (MDST), outlines some of the key findings of MDST’s recent report for pteg, ‘Freight in the City Regions’. You can read the report, and find out more about freight in the city regions on our Freight Hub.

Freight containers being lifted

‘Sustainable distribution’ seeks a balance between economic efficiency and environmental sustainability. Picture: iStock Photo

The need for “sustainable distribution” in the City Regions

The freight and logistics industry is an essential feature of any economy as it allows manufacturers to receive their raw materials and components and to distribute their products to customers, while it also ensures that a wide range of goods are available in the shops. The industry is also a major employer, accounting for 9% of the country’s GDP and 7% of its total employment. At the same time, however, freight transport movements are a source of greenhouse gas emissions, contribute to congestion and generate noise; at a local level the diesel engines that power most road freight vehicles emit particulates that are damaging to human health.

For these reasons, local authorities and PTEs in the English City Regions have a growing interest in freight and are generally focusing on the policy objective of “sustainable distribution”, where a balance is found between economic efficiency and environmental sustainability. The needs and expectations of the freight industry and its customers (which are mainly commercial and economic) have to be balanced with those of City Regions’ residents and visitors through public sector intervention in the market. In economic terms, where the costs of private activities are not fully reflected in the user costs of the freight industry and their customers, there is market failure; the public sector therefore has a role in seeking to balance the needs of the private operators with the wider needs of society.

Through work it carried out for pteg in 2012-13, MDS Transmodal has produced a policy vision for freight and logistics in the English City Regions, along with a “policy toolkit” of practical measures that could be adopted by individual City Regions to move towards achieving this vision. Any initiatives by the City Regions would be addressing a relatively blank canvas. Central Government has made few positive initiatives in the freight sector, having generally been encouraged by the freight industry to leave matters to the market.

Policy vision for freight in the City Regions: the “last mile”

Person loading a box onto a lorry

Consolidation of orders could help reduce the need for freight movements. Picture: iStock Photo

So what, realistically, should the City Regions be seeking to achieve by (say) 2030?

In the context of freight transport and its environmental impacts, the European Environment Agency talks about the need to “shift”, “avoid” and “improve” freight transport and this can be applied to urban freight transport and logistics.

For economic and very practical operational reasons it is difficult for “last mile” deliveries between Regional Distribution Centres (RDCs) and city centre retail outlets to shift from road to non-road modes of transport, so the emphasis is likely to be on “avoiding” and “improving” freight transport in urban areas. The vision for “last mile” deliveries in the City Regions that we have proposed in a report for pteg focused on:

  • Consolidation of orders by receivers of goods and consolidation of road deliveries by freight transport operators, thereby reducing the number of freight movements required (“avoiding” freight transport);
  • Use of low emission vehicles for last mile deliveries and collections in urban areas (“improving”);
  • E-commerce deliveries to local collection and drop-off points (“improving” and “avoiding”);
  • Quiet night-time deliveries (“improving” and “avoiding”).

Policy vision for freight in the City Regions: the wider picture

However, “last mile” deliveries to city centres should also be seen as part of longer distance distribution chains that link goods passing through RDCs with National Distribution Centres and ports and our vision therefore includes the development of a network of “Urban Distribution Centres” (UDCs) in the City Regions that provide the opportunity to transfer medium- to long-distance flows transported by rail and waterborne transport to low emission vehicles for the “last mile” deliveries into city centres.

To secure the maximum potential for the use of sustainable distribution services over medium to long distances, these UDCs need to co-locate intermodal terminals with RDCs (i.e. warehouses) and they need to be located within the range of low emission vehicles for city centre deliveries. These UDCs would be similar to Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges, but would often need to be closer to major urban areas, could also be located on major freight waterways (such as the Thames and the Manchester Ship Canal) and would need to have facilities specifically for low emission vehicles and to facilitate the consolidation of loads.

City Region “freight policy toolkit”

Given that the freight and logistics industry is owned and controlled by the private sector, how can the City Regions achieve this vision?

One thing is clear. This vision can only be achieved by the private sector freight and logistics industry operating in an environment that allows it to behave in a “virtuous” way so that more sustainable distribution can be secured, while also allowing it to compete on a level playing field, invest for the future and generate employment.

Multi-modal freight

There is an opportunity for the City Regions to redefine realistic objectives for the movement of freight that address both sustainability and efficiency. Picture: iStock Photo

The City Regions need to develop integrated and evidence-based freight strategies within the existing Local Transport Plan (LTP) and land use planning framework and in consultation with relevant stakeholders through Freight Quality Partnerships (FQPs), with tailored packages of policy measures that influence the behaviour of the freight industry to adopt sustainable distribution practices.

A non-harmonised, inconsistent regulatory regime that is not based on evidence of impacts and without consulting the freight and logistics industry could actually do more harm than good to both the local economy and environment, as well as unnecessarily disrupting freight transport and logistics activities. While the freight and logistics industry is concerned about ill-informed and uncoordinated public sector intervention, it is equally clear that the industry adapts rapidly and efficiently to new opportunities dictated by different land use policies or the re-emergence of the rail freight sector. In other European countries, road pricing for freight has been absorbed by the industry despite initial objections. It follows that there is an opportunity for the English City Regions to redefine realistic objectives for the movement of freight that address both sustainability and efficiency.

While road pricing for freight would make a considerable contribution to achieving more sustainable distribution, this is a policy that would need to be pursued by government at a national level. At a City Region level, the key instruments for PTEs and local authorities to achieve the objective of sustainable distribution are likely to be:

  • Defining suitable locations for new Urban Distribution Centres (UDCs) in and around the City Regions.
  • Providing indirect subsidies to favour certain vehicle types and delivery timings on the basis of nationally determined principles. These might include exemptions for low emission vehicles from time windows in city centres, allowing LEVs to use priority lanes and make quiet night-time deliveries.
  • Requiring major city centre developments to adopt Delivery Service Plans and promoting their use by other businesses based in city centre offices.
  • Requiring major city centre developments to plan for off-street loading and unloading bays and planning for a network of on-street bays (possibly provided on a user pays basis).
  • Working with Network Rail and other stakeholders to define future rail infrastructure requirements for freight in the City Regions (e.g. re-opening of freight lines and connections for UDCs).
  • Developing a network of pick up and drop off points for e-commerce parcels that are integrated with City Region public transport networks.
  • Working with major ‘industrial’ stakeholders such as ports and manufacturers to develop shared visions in those sectors (e.g. port centric distribution and UDCs) where the City Regions can play a supporting role in economic regeneration through freight and logistics activity.
  • Providing information on regulations and routing for freight through signing, freight maps, information portals and, in the medium to long term, Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS).

The absence of nationally defined strategies for freight transport provides the opportunity for the City Regions to establish their own, using an evidenced-based and consultative approach that is already available via the LTP processes and working with existing FQPs.

Chris Rowland

Director – MDS Transmodal

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