This post is by Stephen Joseph, CEO of the Campaign for Better Transport.
Launched to some fanfare last July by Nick Clegg, the City Deal programme is supposed to free larger urban areas from the dead hand of Whitehall, allowing local decisions on issues like infrastructure. So what will this mean for sustainable transport?
Getting transport right is essential to growing city economies. An overly centralised system under previous governments has been blamed for holding up decision making and restricting the availability of funding.
All of the cities in the first and second waves of city deals have identified the importance of transport and the potential of the single capital pot to get things done. Specifics are thin on the ground, however, and few cities have identified which strategic sustainable transport projects they will seek to progress.
Some cities are making progress
There are exceptions. For example, Nottingham is pushing public realm improvements around its ‘Creative Quarter’, a test bed project to help access to jobs, and more local powers on buses and traffic management. This complements its existing success in introducing a levy on workplace parking spaces and using the revenue to support a major extension to the city’s tram network and a new £70m station hub.
Sheffield is piloting a new ‘Better Bus Area’ scheme, which is bringing multi-operator smartcards, lower fares and more co-ordination. It is also promoting a single city region transport fund and wants local control of local rail services and the trialling an innovative tram-train project.
Why other cities have been less amibitious
The other wave one City Deals are more circumspect with, for example, Greater Birmingham limiting itself to plans for a “strong, efficient and sustainable transport infrastructure”. Others talk about combined authorities and joint transport pots, but with few specifics. Wave two bids so far also look unambitious.
If this looks like a missed opportunity, it isn’t because of a lack of will. Most cities have not used their City Deals to best effect because of the short timescales and difficulty in striking deals across government. Yet these should not be insurmountable problems.
Three opportunities to improve cities’ sustainable transport plans
There are three opportunities to make sure future deals are better, even without resorting to big strategic projects.
- Provide control over rail services: several wave one deals talk of government devolving control over local rail, and this draws on the good practice of London Overground and Merseyrail. But government will need to take a lead here and include devolved management of local rail in its future franchising plans.
- Join up public transport: every city in the country should take on the challenge of joining up their public transport. The Department for Transport’s recent ‘door-to-door journeys’ strategy shows the direction, if not the financial backing, to make this happen. Bus partnerships (for example, St Albans) are showing that, by operators working together rather than in competition, passenger numbers increase. City Deals could allow more radical joining up, bringing together the buses funded separately by health, education and social service providers to make best use of existing public money.
- Promote sustainable transport: every city could be promoting sustainable transport. Building on the various initiatives funded through the government’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund, cities could be doing more to promote cycling through cycle routes and parking, cycle hire, station hubs, and cycle training. Travel plans for workplaces and schools, car clubs and leisure travel initiatives are all being pursued in communities across the country. City Deals could build on these (as Nottingham’s and Sheffield’s do) .
Cuts and complexity could prevent progress
But all this could be undermined. Local authority spending is bracing itself for further year on year cuts. Central government support for bus services is in the second of three years of deep reductions in funding, and the forthcoming spending round could result in even deeper cuts. While a few environmentally damaging and economically dubious road schemes are soaking up public money, the backlog for maintenance on local roads has reached £10.5 billion.
In addition, City Deals are only part of an increasingly complex web of different government initiatives, for example, major transport funding is to be devolved to Local Transport Bodies, public health powers are going to local authorities, single funding pots are to be bid for by Local Enterprise Partnerships following the Heseltine report and there are many other initiatives. City Deals should give cities welcome opportunity to think strategically but, with all the other things going on and a constantly shifting landscape of government policy, it will be hard for this to happen.
Government should give cities more freedom
Cities need more freedom: to move money around, to put different funding pots from government together and to move away from one size fits all. They also need freedom to promote sustainable economic development, as opposed to the unsustainable variety espoused by much of central government. The City Deal programme could be a vehicle for that to happen but, to do so, government departments will have to give up control and even budgets. The signs so far are that the government isn’t really prepared to let go.