When it was in opposition, New Labour made much of the failings of the public transport network under the Conservative regime and promised to deliver real benefits when it took office. Its argument rested on the belief that a mixture of underinvestment, privatisation and mismanagement had destroyed people’s confidence in public transport, creating a nationwide dependence on the car.
On sweeping to power in 1997, Tony Blair’s Government sought to play up the importance of public transport to the electorate, promising the public that New Labour would provide the first-class service it deserved. The 1998 Integrated Transport White Paper outlined these proposals, which were enshrined in the Transport
However, as is so often the case in life, and in politics in particular, things have not quite gone to plan and transport has become something of a millstone around the Government’s neck, if not a serious liability.
The Government has recognised this and is currently in the middle of reviewing its policies on rail, buses and roads generally. However, in the short term, its attempts to turn transport from a political liability into an electoral platform, or at least into a ‘must do more’ category, depends largely on the ability of local authorities to deliver at the front line.
Road traffic levels continue to grow, despite Government commitments that they would drop, and congestion across the country is becoming more and more acute. The consensus among local authorities throughout the country is to try to combat people’s growing dependence on the car by improving or introducing high-quality public transport alternatives. While London and Durham are alone in introducing a congestion charge to discourage car use, many local authorities are keeping a watching brief on the success or otherwise of these schemes, as they consider how best to tackle traffic growth and the associated social and environmental costs.
To equip them to do this, the Government has, in recent budgets, put its money where its mouth is by filling local authority transport coffers. Local transport plans, created in the Transport Act 2000, have received serious funding. At long last, an increasing number of projects across the country are being completed, and more importantly, voters can see that progress is being made. In order to understand what these projects are and who is responsible for delivering them, one must look to local transport plans.
Local transport plans are strategic documents that detail the transport policy within the boundaries of a local authority. They detail a five-year plan of delivery and lay the foundations for a 10-year transport strategy to ensure consistency, commitment and delivery. The experience in the UK over the past decade has shown that there are few long-term benefits to be found in quick fixes, and that a long-term approach is better.
Throughout the country, transport authorities are delivering a range of major and minor projects in an area that is the subject of much regulation, many of which require legislative change of one form or another. Take Merseyside, for example, where Merseytravel, the local passenger transport authority, is seeking to deliver a single integrated public transport network that is accessible to everyone.
Through the Merseyrail Electrics Order 2003, Merseytravel replaced the Strategic Rail Authority as the authority with responsibility for awarding and managing the concession to operate the local rail network. These unique arrangements led to a 25-year concession being awarded to a joint venture company created by service company Serco and NedRailways. Merseytravel’s approach of providing local solutions to local issues through a long-term concession agreement has created a genuine partnership between the public and private sectors and has secured additional private sector investment in the network. This is more than just rhetoric, as Merseyrail is currently the best-performing rail operator in the UK.
At the same time, plans to bring trams back to Merseyside after a 50-year break are progressing. Merseytravel is seeking powers under the Transport and Works Act 1992 to construct and operate the first of a three-line light rail network between Liverpool City Centre and Kirkby Town Centre. A public inquiry closed last month, where an inspector and an assistant inspector heard the case for the scheme as well as the arguments of objectors. Subject to a positive recommendation from the inspectors, and a positive decision by the secretaries of state, Merseytravel hopes to begin work early on in 2005 so that the scheme is operational in time for Liverpool’s celebrations as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Meanwhile, proposals for line two are progressing, with a public consultation exercise starting this month.
Phase one of the Nottingham Express Transit, which opened in March, is already regarded as a resounding success. The Greater Nottingham Light Rapid Transit Act 1994 authorised the construction and operation of line one of this project, but there are plans to extend it by adding two more lines. Lines two and three are due to be promoted through a Transport and Works Act (TWA) Order application in August. This will be the first time that two lines have been covered in one TWA application. The route alignments are currently being considered by Nottingham City and Nottinghamshire County Councils, and it is hoped that approval will be granted in the summer. Subject to receiving a provisional view as to central Government funding, an application for the TWA Order will then be made and it is anticipated that a public inquiry into objections will be held next year.
Nottingham City Council is also the first local authority in the country seeking to introduce a workplace parking levy, using powers provided in the Transport Act 2000. The regulations for this proposal are being discussed with the Department for Transport, which is viewing the scheme as a pilot. Plans are being worked on to go for public consultation in the summer, with a view to the council holding a public inquiry before submitting an order to the Secretary of State for approval. It is likely that there will be another battle to win hearts and minds. Nottingham City Council intends to introduce this measure in 2006-07. Again, a number of local authorities are keeping a watching brief on how this proposal develops, as many others will no doubt be harbouring similar proposals of their own, subject of course to the public’s reaction in Nottingham.
The Government evidently feels that the successful implementation of such schemes is of vital importance to the future transport infrastructure of the UK. Considering the amount of tax-payers’ money that is being used to fund such schemes, the price of failure would be high.
Local authorities have been given the support, both politically and financially, and the Government must hope that the public begins to see significant improvement over the next 12 months. With a general election almost certainly going to be held early next year, planned improvements are not good enough – change must be seen to be happening now.
Robbie Owen is head of parliamentary, public law and planning at Bircham Dyson Bell