Empower councils to tackle congestion
18 December, 2007

Nigel Keohane, Researcher, NLGN
Transport Times

The government’s recent policy paper Towards a Sustainable Transport System has put urban congestion at the forefront of its agenda. It is not hard to see why. Without appropriate action, by 2025 there will be an extra 5.7 million cars on the roads and 30% more congestion. Conversely, the benefi ts of tackling congestion spill over not only on to local economic prosperity but also social cohesion, health, education and business.

If the problem is so transparent why is a solution so hard to come by? The congestion debate frequently gets caught up in a number of standard, repetitive and unhelpful debates: for or against charging; wholesale reregulation or deregulation of buses; a complete new highways network or no investment in roads.

Underlying these debates is the real dynamic and alternative between national or local solutions. Rather than the government applying a national road user pricing scheme across
England or forcibly re-regulating bus services, local communities must be able to choose and integrate a wide range of demand management tools.

Our research has found that the underlying problem can be defi ned succinctly. The sheer range and diversity of challenges at a local level makes an integrated local response imperative.
But local transport leaders do not have the capacity to lead strategically or take their communities through difficult and controversial decisions. What is more, councils do not possess the necessary investment opportunities or decision-making authority to make schemes effective.

However, New Local Government Network research has also identifi ed a clear package of reforms to unlock the potential for local transport management. This involves putting local government at the heart of the solution, maximising the benefit out of local assets and services, and making behavioural change a reality through community engagement.

So what is needed to make this happen? In the fi rst place, councillors must be put at the heart of local transport. At present, while councils are responsible to their communities and
agree targets with central government in other policy areas, they have an ineff ectual hold on the reins of local transport strategy or performance.

Currently, unelected traffi c commissioners register and regulate performance of bus operators, and the government is consulting on extending their powers. However, traffic commissioners are too far removed from the nuances of local community needs. Their powers over registration
and regulation of local buses should be devolved to council leaders.

In turn, the leader of the council should become truly answerable to their community and report regularly to a Local Passenger Forum to explain policies and outcomes.

This simplified structure would make accountability for transport clearer and more forceful. It is also proposed that councils should be enabled to work together through multi-area agreements to reach common goals across sub-regions.

This, however, solves only half the problem. Investment in alternative infrastructure is needed to motivate behavioural change. For once, national government is not being asked for further revenue. What is actually needed is for local revenue and capital opportunities to be opened up and existing grant to be devolved to local authorities.

Local government must be enabled to use existing assets and revenue opportunities. Potential revenue streams should include charging and public transport fares. Upfront investment could be funded through borrowing against these future revenue streams or leasing out concessions on local roads. In turn, these investments would drive a modal shift to public transport and greater fares revenue.

A final part of the funding solution lies in devolving existing grant from central to local government. Channelling the £380m Bus Service Operators Grant through local authorities would give councils a stronger hold on routes and fares.

Councils could distribute the subsidy among operators to best solve the congestion problems and access needs of their local communities.

Networks and fares could then be bett er tailored to enable access and tackle congestion. Local government could insist on service improvements through payment in kind such as implementing smartcards, GPS, or real time information.

The final part of the solution lies with local authorities to exploit the potential in these reforms and through new forms of engagement and communication. Simply by managing the working practices of the public sector in their area, councils can shape the working practices of 28% of the labour force. By using smartcards and real time information, councils can both improve the public transport experience and shape behaviour.

The government is right to make tackling congestion a priority. By devolving funding and governance to locally elected representatives, the government can find the solution by
putt ing local councils in the driving seat.