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All Aboard the Devolution Train (and Bus)

All Aboard the Devolution Train (and Bus)

🕔24.Sep 2014

Alex Burrows, a well-known Birmingham-based transport expert and blogger, reflects on a speech at yesterday’s conference that few will have heard but could be significant for the future of transport in the city region.

Yesterday at Labour’s Party Conference we heard about Ed Miliband giving a 70 minute speech from memory – and forgetting several important paragraphs along the way.  But most will have heard little about the speech given by Mary Creagh, the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport.

It may not have been a barnstorming, or a cerebral, speech or packed full of anecdotes, but it gave some very clear pointers of significant interest to Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.

First, she reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to High Speed 2.  Now the fuss has died down and the details are being sorted, we are starting to hear more about how Birmingham and the wider region can reap the benefits from this project.  Sir Albert Bore and Andy Street frequently raise HS2 as the key driver that will bring jobs and growth.  But this is a nuanced point.  HS2 requires significantly improved local and regional connectivity to support it.  This was evidenced by work Centro undertook with KPMG that showed this connectivity would bring the big wins.

Labour policy appears to be moving behind empowering cities to take the lead on delivering transport.  The message has got home that cities (or city-regions perhaps more accurately) should be supported and enabled to take the lead on designing and delivering the appropriate solutions according to their local needs.

Interestingly, Mary Creagh referenced the ‘debates’ in West Yorkshire and the North East over the introduction of Quality Contracts that will essentially allow local authorities to take more control over bus services.  These authorities will have the support of a Labour Government to implement those Quality Contracts.  That is tacit support for a form of re-regulation as well as supporting local control.  There was also a reference to rail franchise decisions being brought closer to the communities they serve.

Birmingham has been a strong advocate for local authorities having control over rail franchises, rather than the distant mandarins in Whitehall whose knowledge of the West Midlands is limited and whose interest in our daily experience even less well appreciated!

So is Labour going to set out a detailed offer empowering us in the West Midlands to have real powers to fund and deliver (and control) our transport network?  I suspect to a certain extent they will.  Perhaps we can tie with the Leader’s speech which did reference empowering Manchester to take more control of its own affairs – that Greater Manchester leaders are the ones who should be allowed and enabled to deliver the jobs and growth that their local communities want and need.

But the current debate on devolution/decentralisation within England seems to be heading into a polarised vortex.  On one hand, there is talk of an English Parliament and/or English votes for English laws.  This is a nebulous and disingenuous response to calls for empowering the English regions.  We would not have any greater control here in the West Midlands over our affairs with an English Parliament in place.

To have more power to raise the money locally to deliver real transport improvements there needs to be a wholesale transfer of functions out of Whitehall.  In transport terms this would include:

  • A West Midlands Rail Authority responsible for managing the franchise (or concession) for regional trains;
  • Additional powers (a more practical version of Quality Contracts) for Local Transport Authorities to specify bus services and standards, including to deploy a franchise system as in London;
  • An integrating power for Local Transport Authorities to be able to compel all transport operators to work within a single fares and ticketing system;
  • The ability for Local Authorities to be able to raise revenue through locally-appropriate schemes in order to fund transport improvements;
  • The ability for Local Authorities to be able to implement local highway management schemes (ie congestion charging, road user charging etc.) in order to control congestion and pollution and encourage and support behaviour change to incentivise drivers to move to public transport;
  • The ability to collaborate with health agencies to jointly-fund active travel initiatives that provide transport and public health benefits.

In order to successfully devolve transport powers and funding it needs to be done in a fully-committed and empowering manner.  There must be no half-measures and there must be scope for cities to develop really innovative solutions – particularly when it comes to raising money and to undertake controversial initiatives (usually involving encouraging less driving and more use of public transport!).

But it can be done, just look at London.  The congestion charge has supported huge public transport investment.  Crossrail received huge funding support from a levy on businesses and the benefits will be vast.  We can do the same in Birmingham if only we believed we could and really went for it.

Alex Burrows is normally to be found at  http://alex-burrows.com/

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