Devolve transport funding, says CBT

Devolve transport funding, says CBT

In the wake of the Scottish referendum, the momentum for devolution has continued south of the border and the Campaign for Better Transport believes that this has clear implications for transport with potential benefits to be realised by moving away from over-centralisation.

The group has released a discussion document, Making Transport Local, that sets out its vision for how a more devolved approach to transport decision-making could pay dividends for passengers.

“The aim of the paper is to start a discussion,” says CBT chief executive Stephen Joseph. “It’s a think-piece that sets out our ideas and invites others to contribute.”

Joseph points out that the devolution genie is already out of the bottle. He believes that in the metropolitan areas there is a consensus that there will be more devolution “whoever wins the next election”. The mets already have structures such as PTEs and combined authorities which can take on greater powers, according to Joseph, but there are also opportunities for other areas to work together and CBT proposes the formation of transport consortia among neighbouring towns and shire counties.

Some of the powers for such consortia already exist in the Transport Act 2000, although there may be a requirement for a more formal statutory footing, but Joseph asserts that ultimately this is an issue of international competitiveness. He points to parallels in continental Europe where sub-regional bodies such as the German Verkehrsverbunds  have considerable transport powers which encourage inward investment.

In its discussion paper CBT argues that an international company investing in, say, Germany will find that available sites have generally good public transport services, with multi-modal, multi-operator smart tickets available to get their employees to work. And they will also find that cycling is a major mode of transport and public spaces are well designed to encourage it. By contrast, the same company looking at an English area outside London will find, in general, poorer public transport access and operator-specific tickets, with limited smart ticketing, and (with exceptions) cycling as a niche transport mode and public spaces dominated by road traffic.

Joseph believes that the issue of Oyster-style smart ticketing is critical. “I think people will increasingly expect it,” he says. He recognises that there are some good examples of multi-operator ticketing around the industry, including Nottingham and Oxford, but believes that bus operators, and particularly the major groups, need to be doing more to make it happen. “Bus operators can’t just sit back, they have to deliver and they shouldn’t be doing things only in response to the threat of quality contracts,” he adds. “The industry has to step up to the plate. Even small cities and coastal towns compare themselves internationally these days.”

Joseph believes that devolution could provide direct benefits to the bus industry if it enabled a more joined-up approach to bus priorities. He proposes that highways powers should be transferred to Combined Authorities with some responsibilities moving up from district councils and some devolved down from the Highways Agency, enabling a more holistic view of bus priority. He points to some areas where such an approach works, such as Brighton and Nottingham, because they are governed by unitary authorities.

One possible by-product of the devolution momentum that may not be welcomed by many operators is quality contracts. CBT has been consistent in its approach here. It has long argued that the QC model needs to be properly assessed through a trial. “Let’s see how it would work,” says Joseph, whose hunch is that whoever forms the next government will not stand in the way of quality contract trials in areas like the north east. He believes the next government is likely to view such initiatives as ‘localism’ and will simply let them get on with it. And in fact Joseph’s assertion was subsequently reinforced by the Labour leader’s announcement backing the areas looking at QCs.

Joseph recognises the strength of feeling among bus operators but has a warning for them: “The industry is in danger of finding itself on the wrong side of history if it ignores all this. They will have to prove that they can deliver something better than quality contracts.”

And perhaps the industry should take care not to dismiss voices such as Joseph. We should remember that he represents a group that is undeniably on the side of the bus with explicit aims to see more people travelling by bus and train. The group has also been very active in supportive campaigns including opposition to the Liverpool mayor’s culling of the city’s bus lanes.

Looking to the future of transport funding, CBT backs the idea of pooling all transport funding under a Connectivity Fund, as proposed by PTEG, or in Total Transport pilots. Joseph says that such a mechanism would bring together all of the disparate pockets of transport funding that are scattered around government departments including in areas such as social welfare, health and prison visiting, enabling more joined-up funding of local bus services by local consortia or combined authorities/PTEs.

CBT recognises that the devolution debate could get bogged down in major disputes between the parties, but it believes that its ideas for devolving transport powers could be compatible with major constitutional reforms, but don’t depend on them.

“Unless Whitehall is prepared to let go and give these new bodies real powers and funding over local transport, our transport systems will still let the country down economically, trap people in poverty and exclusion, and cause major environmental problems,” says CBT. “Combined Authorities/PTEs and Transport Consortia are or can become capable bodies that will be able to plan and improve transport in their areas. The question is, will Whitehall give them the chance?”