Spend Nationally, Speak Locally

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.

Bottom Up

You may well ask what a lecture on water management, a webinar on neighbourhood planning and my specialism of transport planning have in common. The obvious answer is that they are all subjects of RTPI-sponsored events this November (the transport planning one is on the 23rd) that I am attending for Continuing Professional Development and networking opportunities. This is true, but gives no indication of the insights I have gained from presentations about subjects only tangentially related to the work of a transport planner.

Major water infrastructure such as barriers and dykes have strong parallels with major transport infrastructure like roads and railways. These are projects of national scale and investment. One seeks to reduce the probability of flood damage and the other to provide increased capacity, usually for long distance travel. Neither actually manages water or movement. Nor do they directly address the consequences thereof, be it a flood that breaches the barrier or the increased traffic brought in by a new road link or attracted by a new high-speed railway station. Nor do they create resilience in a local community to adapt.

Professor Woltjer’s lecture on 16 November was called A Place-Based Approach to Water and Infrastructure Management, and although mainly about water management, one of his first points was that infrastructure in western cities is part of ‘complete’ networks. Therefore infrastructure management is more about replacement and adaptation to changing circumstances, rather than building new major infrastructure, be it dyke or road.

Later in the talk, I was struck by a slide on local flood groups. These are people in communities coming together to plan for potential consequences, by having evacuation procedures or emergency food stores. They also seek adaptation strategies together, perhaps identifying areas suitable for water storage or objecting to development that increases land area impervious to water drainage.

The link between the flood groups and the parish councils or urban forums who come together to make neighbourhood plans is plain. But the flood groups do not have any legal status nor funding stream. The Environment Agency has limited resources to adequately manage its own workload, never mind support these groups, although it may be that this happens on a more ad hoc or voluntary basis.

It occurred to me that local transport planning is in a similar position. With the disappearance of 5-year funding allocations tied to the Local Transport Plan back in 2011, the capacity for capital projects in individual neighbourhoods like public realm enhancements or new pedestrian crossings was greatly reduced. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) offered certain opportunities, particularly for revenue-based schemes, e.g. personal, work or school travel planning, but not all areas were successful in winning funding. Nor would all local highway authorities be aware of the needs of every neighbourhood or invest in every neighbourhood.

Furthermore, LSTF is almost over and there is no indication yet that it will be replaced. All we know ahead of next week’s spending review is that the DfT, the DCLG and Defra have all already agreed to extensive additional funding cuts. Devolution deals may be the main silver lining to all this reduction in local spending, but the webinar on neighbourhood planning did make me wonder whether localism cannot successfully be taken even further. It was a question I asked during the webinar, and I look forward to receiving feedback.

I have already expressed my general support for devolution in earlier blogs: https://go-how.com/2014/10/22/municipal-independence-referendum/ and https://go-how.com/2015/09/28/devolution-is-in-the-detail/. I have also expressed my reservations about devolution without appropriate tax and spend powers given to the optimised geographies.

Professor Woltjer asked if flood-prone areas could locally tax households that increase their hard-standings. The webinar asked multiple times about the appropriate geography for a neighbourhood plan, particularly in an urban area. So, in conclusion, I ask whether we need an even more bottom-up devolution of legal and financial powers for water management, transport planning and other neighbourhood impact management, resilience and adaptation issues? Or am I reading too much into a couple CPD events?

No News?

In these post-election months, I was looking forward to writing a blog about the new Government’s plans for transport. The problem is, there isn’t much to write about.

A few weeks ago, there was the less-than-surprising revelation that Network Rail wasn’t meeting its targets for the £38billion plan of network improvements. So new leadership has been appointed and that big programme announced before the election will be reviewed and scaled back. This is all well and good, but it’s more of an un-news story than a news story in terms of transport planning.

Then there was the announcement by the Airports’ Commission of its recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow. This didn’t receive the level of attention I expected. Knowing the likely political fall-out, Downing Street refused to make ‘a snap judgement’ and the BBC reported that a formal government response was unlikely to be forthcoming until the Autumn. Which meant even the NO campaign only bothered grumbling briefly.

(For my response to a key NO tenet: https://hdbudnitz.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/flying-for-family/.)

So that is why I was looking forward to this week’s budget. The first of the new Government. And what do I get? Not much.

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport @ciltuk managed a mere seven bullet points.

Three of these were to do with investing in England’s northern cities. The reinforced Government commitment to a form of devolution to cities and, on closer inspection of the budget document itself, potentially to counties too is welcome. I’ve expressed my support of devolved powers before in https://hdbudnitz.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/municipal-independence-referendum/ and I admire @CentreforCities research and advocacy.

However, the new rival to Transport for London, Transport for the North includes not only the band of cities from Liverpool to Hull, and even Hull could be geographically questionable, but also Newcastle. What a challenge to create a cohesive transport system that works for central Manchester or Leeds and also bridges the wide rural expanses between city regions? And with only £30 million of additional funding over 3 years. I’m not sure what it’s in addition to, but that doesn’t compare well with the £10 billion of transport investment promised to London during this Parliament. Perhaps that’s why the key measure for TfN to deliver is apparently ‘seamless oyster style ticketing across the system’. Meanwhile, London keeps one step ahead, moving from Oyster Card to bank card, with other Southeast cities like Reading soon to follow suit.

Otherwise, investment in local transport infrastructure includes a few extra, named pinch point projects, a few more new rail stations promised, and funding for road maintenance. Walking, cycling, active transport, public realm; none of these are mentioned at all. There’s the vehicle excise duty changes, frozen fuel duty, capped rail fares. Old news at best. But nothing about addressing the imbalance between continued support for concessionary bus fares for the disabled and elderly whilst the bus services they use are slashed or shrinking.

I hope locally-run transport in mayorally-responsible authorities will be a bit more ambitious and a bit more innovative than the Budget suggests. There are plenty of examples to follow – see https://hdbudnitz.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/some-things-new-ish/ or https://hdbudnitz.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/can-creativity-beat-cuts/ for some ideas.

But that’s assuming sufficient funding, appropriate responsibility, the removal of obstructive business interests, and the mayors themselves are all in place. Which looks to be a slow process. In the meantime, again, there is little for a transport planner to get excited about.

I hear Osborne has more to say next week. Housing and planning look to be big news, but how about transport?