Jams Today
24 November, 2007

Nigel Keohane, Researcher, NLGN
LGA First

Congestion hit prime time television last week (‘Bottleneck Britain’, 12 November, Channel 4). One would have thought that traffic jams would be the last thing that the commuter would wish to return home to. However, the scheduling is indicative of the gravity of the crisis and the
broad desire to find a solution.

The real question is who should take the lead role in shaping the response. Notwithstanding central government’s appreciation that congestion must be tackled locally, councillors have had bitparts in local transport for too long.

Despite being accountable to government priorities, to their electorate and to their community, councils do not control local bus services. Instead, unelected appointed-for-life traffic commissioners are sitting off-stage and directing performance.

But who has even heard of them? These six appointees for England are barely visible, have no accountability to local people, and can surely only possess a passing knowledge of the needs of
differing communities.

It is high time now for the traffic commissioners to relinquish their local role and for new, more appropriate players, to take the stage. Council leaders should assume responsibilities for local services and answer to local passenger forums, not an unelected quango.

At the same time, local authorities struggle to find the funding opportunities to hold centre stage. In our new report The politics of traffic, published this month, we suggest devolving to councils the £380m bus service operators’ fuel rebate. Operators are currently reclaiming fuel duty irrespective of vehicle efficiency, passenger numbers or how profitable
their routes are. The bus network should serve the resident not just operators’ profits.

With an average of £3.7m each, councils could distribute this money to ensure the best routes, fares and timings. They could invest in ‘real time’ information services and smart cards.

Together with other local funding routes, such as charging and fares, councils could provide genuine alternatives to the car. To tackle congestion, what is needed is a really local lead. Councils must step into the limelight so that their residents can be the ones who write the script.