Two days before the Spending Review, the Royal Town Planning Institute Transport Planning Network and the Transport Planning Society held a joint event. Entitled ‘Transport and Spatial Planning,’ it billed itself as addressing a topic of ‘strategic importance… on the political agenda.’ Would there be clues as to what will keep transport planners busy over the next four years?
Yes: Devolution of transport powers and investment in major rail and road infrastructure were key themes in most of the presentations from those with intimate knowledge of what has been going on behind the scenes as momentum builds for High Speed 2, the Northern Powerhouse, the Roads Investment Strategy, and devolution bids from non-metropolitan areas.
All the speakers agreed that governance arrangements for transport are changing rapidly, from Highways England to TfL-style authorities in the regions. The devolution of powers to these sub-national transport bodies is well underway. The senior civil servant on the panel emphasised that ministers are ‘deadly serious’ about devolution. (See https://go-how.com/2014/10/22/municipal-independence-referendum/ and https://go-how.com/2015/09/28/devolution-is-in-the-detail/ for previous thoughts on the devolution debate.) He also outlined the DfT’s four strategic priorities: Investment in infrastructure, improving journeys, commitment to ‘safe, secure and sustainable’ transport systems, and supporting the concept of ‘One-Nation Britain’ through devolution.
These priorities were presented without ranking, but the Spending Review outcomes announced two days later clarify their importance. The Government is putting its money into big, national-scale infrastructure projects, whilst its mouth talks about devolved powers delivering local solutions. Without a clear funding source.
Local Government budgets are still shrinking and the DfT’s revenue budget will fall a further 37%. The plan to eventually run local government entirely on whatever Council tax, business rates and other fees and charges they can raise locally will mean some authorities cannot pay for all the services statute requires them to provide. Revenue-based local solutions like subsidised park and ride or Bikeability training aren’t legally required, whilst budgets for socially-necessary transport and concessionary fares are themselves under pressure. How will the DfT meet its priority of ‘safe, secure and sustainable’ transport systems?
Meanwhile, road and rail infrastructure investment is clearly well-funded.
The spending review confirmed that £15bn would be spent over the next five years on the “Roads Investment Strategy [which] signals the biggest investments in roads since the 1970s.” With the £12bn local growth fund and £475m Local Majors fund announced at the Spending Review, Counties and LEPs are set to invest in the more strategic local routes too.
HS2 is also allocated just over £15bn and Network Rail £34.5bn, which will be spent on rail line electrification, new lines, upgraded stations, etc. There are also policy promises to freeze regulated rail fares, introduce flexible season ticketing e.g. for part time commuters, and improve compensation to rail travellers, just as the £13bn Transport for the North has been promised for infrastructure (perhaps the new Transpennine rail link, HS3) also includes £150m for integrated, smart ticketing.
But there is still little designated funding for measures like buses and travel planning. ‘Buses’ are only mentioned twice in the whole document, in the context of new buses for London. Apparently the Bus Service Operator Grant has been saved to the tune of £230m a year (or another source says £345m), but I couldn’t find mention of it the transport or local government sections of the Autumn Statement.
As for active travel, the £300m set aside for cycling is primarily to fulfil the Cycle Ambition City scheme commitments, and this order of spend over 5 years is hardly revolutionary. There is a line item in Table 1.10 continuing the Local Sustainable Transport Fund to the tune £100m per year, which is a positive, although LSTF is not mentioned anywhere else.
There are also separate lines for £600m to be invested in supporting ‘the uptake and manufacturing of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEV)’ and £300m in the Transport Development Fund to develop future projects. Positive again, but is the latter also for infrastructure only?
It would seem that the ‘blue book’ does not give us all the insights transport planners may want, any more than the presentations at the RTPI/TPS event. Try to do your own sums at your peril, as some of the numbers mentioned above may or may not be part of the headline £61bn DfT capital budget. Conversely, no matter how it is divided, DFT revenue funding is decreasing and local governments can increase Council Tax for social care and business rates to fund infrastructure, but neither for transport revenue spend. According to the CILT, even the much-touted ‘pothole fund’ is only an increase in spending on highway maintenance because ‘spending on local roads in England is at its lowest level for well over a decade’ anyway.
Still, devolution could mean cities and counties deliver their own messages. As an Independent Transport Commissioner said, English towns and cities compete with their European counterparts, not with the global city of London. So if the UK Government isn’t putting its money where its mouth is, in local transport solutions, then it’s up to local governments to be creative with the new powers they’re being given and whatever money they can scrape together to keep the country walking, cycling and riding the bus in the right direction.