The ‘devolution revolution’ is finally upon us and we must collectively grasp the opportunity it presents.
‘Transport devolution: the ticket to greater productivity’ was the topic of two fringe debates at the recent Labour and Conservative Party Conferences sponsored by Atkins, TfL, TfGM and The Guardian. From the panel discussions it was evident that there is a general cross party support for the devolution of powers to local government, albeit some differences on points of detail.
Decentralisation is particularly relevant to local transport services. Transport for London previously led the way by evolving from disparate transport authorities into one entity, linking transport as a whole across the capital and has achieved this with much success. Now the government is keen to revitalise other city regions through new initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine for Growth – driving other regional groupings of local authorities to embark on a similar restructure.
The significant social, economic and infrastructural benefits of devolution have been noted. As Whitehall releases powers to cities, Regional Transport Authorities engaging with local communities and end users are arguably best placed to identify what infrastructure improvements will best serve local needs. Infrastructure investment in local transport is expected to become regionally strategic and more balanced across travel modes. Regions will have the opportunity to achieve greater integration and provide simpler smart ticketing and fare systems; allowing greater accessibility to travel.
Viewing infrastructure as an enabler to improve productivity, drive economic growth and unlock much needed social development, was also widely accepted at the fringe events. Providing better connectivity will broaden the ability for people to access employment, education and training and healthcare. Better outcomes for residents are possible by getting skills to jobs, trainees to education and goods to markets. And, of course it is an opportunity to unlock regional growth and address the historic north/south divide.
Technology also has an important part to play in the revolution. Customers and users of both public transport and roads are increasingly dependent on technology to provide travel solutions. Whether it’s to purchase tickets or understand how to get efficiently from A to B across different transport modes. Smart cities are already becoming a reality and looking further ahead towards autonomous vehicles, the internet of things and the next generation of broadband, it becomes necessary to join up services more efficiently than ever before.
Devolving budget responsibilities for health, education and transport to local government offers many other opportunities particularly in relation to Total Transport. Significant efficiency improvements can be achieved by joining up different transport services, allocating resources and providing services that better meet the needs of passengers.
This all sounds brilliant. But here is the fundamental challenge – devolution is set to be ‘budget neutral’. We need to constantly make the case for investment in infrastructure, we need to be relentless in this regard. Local Transport funding needs to be ring fenced with secured multi-year settlements and as devolution is set to reshape the political landscape, the devil will be in the detail.