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Transport devolution a risk – PAC

Further devolution for local transport services could lead to weakened accountability, the Public Accounts Committee has stated in a new report.

The Committee considered how moving funding for local transport to local authorities could risk poor decisions. The LGA has responded, calling the suggestion of a move back towards centralism a “retrograde step”.

The report found that in 2010-11 councils spent £8.5bn on public transport, £2.2bn funded by the DfT. Another £1.2bn was provided by the DfT for highways maintenance and small transport projects.

It concluded that a lack of monitoring on how un-ringfenced grants are spent means there is insufficient information to determine the impact of the DfT’s contribution to councils’ spending decisions.

The full details of a planned devolution to local government are still to be determined, and the Government cannot yet clearly define how cross-boundary projects will be funded.

The PAC warns that these changes could weaken existing limited accountability and transparency arrangements and stated that they are “not confident that Government has thought through these risks”.

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “The Department for Transport makes a substantial contribution towards the funding of local transport services, but has no clear way of controlling how this money is used.

“We are not convinced that government has thought through the risks of devolving more control over the funding of major transport projects to a local level. For example, the Department is confident that local bodies will naturally cooperate to fund and implement projects. We believe this confidence may well be misplaced.

“The risk is that local transport bodies, under severe financial pressure, will not take sufficiently strategic and joined-up decisions, threatening national or regional transport funding objectives.”

Cllr Peter Box, chair of the Local Government Association’s Economy and Transport Board, said: “Baseless speculation and insinuation about how councils spend transport funding is a slap in the face to those authorities which are working flat out to fix potholes brought on by recent flooding and freezing weather, facing multi-million pound repair bills while trying to manage severe budget cuts.

“Councils and other local authorities know best the needs of their areas. The PAC’s call for a return to local and regional transport decisions being made by civil servants hundreds of miles away in Whitehall would be a retrograde step.”

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