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Transport - reality and Government policy

September 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Baroness Ros Scott in Challenge

Train Approaching London Bridge StationRos Scott points out the flaws in the Government's transport policies and highlights local solutions

We all like to talk about transport. Along with the weather, it is a peculiarly British obsession, perhaps because, like the weather, transport here seems to be especially bad!

It always amuses me when pundits claim that 'these days' transport is high up the public agenda - as a county councillor for 12 years now, I can honestly say that for every piece of other casework I have to deal with across the whole range of social services, education and so on, I receive ten which relate to transport. Transport has always been high on the agenda of my constituents.

But, of course, what the chattering classes mean is that it is the big transport issues which are now high on the agenda - the future of our rail industry, how to cope with the demands of a growing aviation sector, by how much should we widen the M25 and so on.

The reality of course is that it is the day-to-day issues like potholes, whether your children can cross the road safely or the ability of your elderly mum to get to the shops by bus which so engage the public. In proportionate terms, very few of us will regularly use the West Coast Main Line or the Channel Tunnel Rail link, but the ability to cross the road safely affects most of us day after day.

So, for us local politicians, "It's the quality of life, stupid".

So are we, in local government, delivering the modern transport agenda?

In this article I want to set out a few of the challenges as I see them. This is written unashamedly from a politicians' point of view. I am neither an engineer nor a scientist and make no pretensions to being a technical expert on transport issues.

But I do lay claim to understanding the role of councils in all this, a perspective gained not just from my dozen years in local government but from six years as Deputy and now Chair of the Local Government Association Transport Executive. For the uninitiated, the LGA is the body which represents all local authorities in the country, created from three predecessor organisations representing County, Metropolitan and District/Borough councils.

Alistair Darling recently asked the Commission for Integrated Transport, of which I happen to be a member, to do a study into the 'failure' of local government to deliver the local transport agenda. The Commission's report, now public, is based on a comprehensive survey of councils, plus the Commission's analysis. And - surprise, surprise - it sets out all the concerns which we at the Local Government Association had expressed to Government some three years, and two Ministers, ago.

The report highlights the problems which arise from stop-go investment programmes, in terms of staff shortages, lack of appropriate skills and the lack of revenue funding to match the increased capital resources put in by central government.

But whilst these are resolvable over time, there are other more central issues which show no signs of being addressed seriously by Government.

The 1998 Integrated Transport White Paper represented a real breakthrough at the time, and most of us were delighted to see a new approach which took traffic reduction seriously and emphasised the need to reduce the need for travel, rather than the old approach of predict and provide. I think it is true to say that local government in the main bought in to this policy wholeheartedly, and altered its approach accordingly.

The 10 year plan seemed to move away from this, with the emphasis moving on to the need to reduce congestion. Road building was back on the agenda, and demand restraint, if not actually off the agenda, was not to be spoken of in public for fear of offending what has become known as 'the motoring lobby'.

Having created the powers to bring in congestion charging and workplace parking levy in the Transport Act 2000, the lukewarm attitude of Government to specific schemes has left local councils high and dry. A certain amount of recent back pedalling after the initial success of the London charging scheme has not been enough to instill confidence in authorities who are grappling with congestion.

Very recently, Darling has begun to speak of road user charging, so perhaps, at last, we are to see Government leadership on this matter.

This divergence between the Integrated Transport White Paper and the 10 Year Plan has left local authorities with a number of problems, for their objectives are substantially different. Most councils prefer the approach of the White Paper - after all, congestion simply is not a major problem in many areas, whereas tackling other policy objectives such as economic regeneration or social exclusion may take a much higher priority. These are simply not reflected adequately in the 10 Year Plan and it is the targets within the Plan that are the basis on which councils are being judged.

But there are much more serious inconsistencies in Government policy.

Whilst on the one hand it has legislated to permit demand restraint measures at local council level, it has failed to deal with the fact that the real cost of motoring is actually falling in relation to public transport. Our rail fares are the highest in Europe - £10 buys you 55 miles of rail travel in this country whilst you could clock up over 100 in Belgium and 300 in Italy. What sort of message is this sending out?

And what about the policies established by other departments? The closure of local hospitals and their replacement with large, edge of town sites is causing considerable access problems, with no thought apparently being given to this is the planning stage. Changes in education policy and the absence of change in the arrangements for home to school transport leaves many families with little realistic option other than to use their cars for the school run.

The publication of the Governments assessment of the five economic tests for joining the euro has highlighted the issue of the peculiarities of the British housing market. I'll leave the impact of housing and our ability to achieve convergence to the economists, but I must point out that the combination of high home ownership with a highly flexible job market is putting an enormous strain on our transport network.

With the average tenure in a job now some three years, people need to be free to move about. But with three quarters of us owning our own homes, and many caught in the trap of significant regional price variations, the only option for many is not to move house but to commute increasingly large distances.

Add to this the complexities of family break ups, policies which allow choice of educational provision and the centralisation of essential services and you create an unsustainable demand for travel. This is borne out by the exponential rise over the last thirty years in the average distance travelled by each one of us.

Government, and indeed society as a whole, has to understand that we can no longer just assume that the capacity can always be created, no matter what demands are placed on it.

Transport is another one of those areas - like asylum - where it seems impossible to have a mature political dialogue. Characterising policy options into pro or anti car lobbies is not promoting the sort of debate we need to have. Some of the freedoms we enjoy have been bought at a price - congestion, unreliable transport systems, increasing numbers of casualties. We need to understand what exactly are the trade-offs, to discuss what we can accept and then do something about the things we can't.

This is a pessimistic scenario, but I make no apology for that. We live in an age when it is assumed that the existence of a problem implies a solution, but it ain't necessarily so, at least not on a macro level. This brings us back to the local and what we operating at community level can be doing.

At a local level, the best of local transport authorities, places like York, Bristol, Brighton and Bath, are doing a great job in improving the quality of life for their residents by imaginative use of street engineering, technology, re-allocation of road space and investment in buses and bus priority. Their achievements are often in the face of vehement opposition from people who are resistant to any kind of change or what they see as curbs to their liberty. I would like to see the environmental lobby groups do much more to support local authorities who are trying to do these things, rather than just bashing the ones who aren't.

We need to have a lot more information from places like Oxford and Nottingham where traffic has been reduced, to find out what the impacts of their policies have been on air quality, respiratory disease and other less tangible 'feel good' factors. This would give local politicians some weapons in the defence of their schemes.

I recently went too look at a 'Safely to School' project in York, where a combination of soft engineering measures and promotional campaigns, all developed with the local community, has led to a 30 per cent reduction in the number of cars going to the school. Rolled out across the country, this would have a dramatic effect on traffic levels - far more that the West Coast Mainline or Channel Tunnel Rail link!