Major spending cuts are threatening the success stories of the coalition's first year.
By Richard Hebditch
On Friday this week, it will be one year from the general election. So how much has changed for transport since Labour left office and the coalition parties took over?
First the good news. There have been three big success stories from the new government:
- The £560m Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which for the first time should give a real incentive for most local councils to develop more sustainable transport in their area and give a boost to programmes that can 'nudge' people into more environmentally friendly modes of transport, as well as cutting congestion
- Changes to the way that the Department for Transport decides which schemes to fund - these technical and rather arcane changes means that we can get the kind of schemes that can really make a difference rather than just schemes which shave a few minutes off trips by car
- Maintaining the current levels of investment in the railways so that they can be fit for the 21st century rather than the 19th, for instance continuing the plans for electrification of lines.
But the positive impact of these is in danger of being lost against the background of the major cuts in public spending.
The front loading of the cuts to local councils is especially damaging. Councils have faced losing a quarter of their funding and many have cut back on support for bus services. Buses often are near the top of people's priorities for spending by councils but their legal duties to provide buses are weaker than for some other service areas and most councils are now making big cuts.
Spending cuts have also meant that the price of maintaining rail investment has been to allow even higher hikes in most fares so that they will rise by a quarter by 2015 and with next year's fare rises likely to be at least four times the rise in wages.
There are also some big unanswered questions on transport policy from the coalition, reflecting some of the tensions between the two coalition parties.
The first of these is: what does localism mean for transport? Each government department seems to have its own interpretation of localism but it's especially important for transport. The level at which decisions are made (and the powers they might have) is vital for any progress towards improving transport. Local transport authorities' size and powers vary widely from the unique case of London, where the mayor has transport, planning and financial powers, to the other big cities where powers and funding depend on negotiating between competing individual councils, transport operators and central government.
There are also contending ideas of localism between the Lib Dems (who favour more powers directly to local councils) and Conservatives (who favour a stronger role for the market and, of late, to civil society).
This matters as the government has yet to make up its mind on its policy on regulating bus services. Before the election, the Conservatives wanted to remove some of the powers for local councils under the last Transport Act. In contrast, the Lib Dem manifesto talked of London-style franchising of bus services by councils.
On the planning system too, there are tensions over whether localism will free up private companies or back a more communitarian approach. For instance, the neighbourhood plans that were supposed to be for local community groups to develop are now to be extended to companies.
The second question is whether there is a long-term strategy for transport beyond just the high speed rail proposals. The Labour government was criticised for not following through on its many detailed strategies and initiatives. But late in the day, the Developing a Sustainable Transport System (DaSTS) framework did offer an opportunity to provide a longer-term strategy which could bring together central, regional and local government.
The coalition government has rejected what it sees as Labour's over-ambitious strategies but its fixed-term timetable means its approach is more short-term. It goals are limited to cutting carbon and supporting the economy without a meaningful description of what this means for the complex range of bodies involved in development and delivering our transport system. The lack of clarity about what these goals really mean results in the danger of individual policies being in conflict and adding up to less than the sum of the parts.
Bus regulation, spatial planning and a strategic plan are not issues that people feel mobilised by but they are vital to creating a greener transport system for the future. The first year of the coalition saw a rush to agree the spending review and sort out immediate priorities. Moving into the second year, the two parties must develop a more meaningful and long-term strategy for transport.
Richard Hebditch is campaigns director for Campaign for Better Transport
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