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01.04.13

Transport devolution should be ‘a given’

Source: Public Sector Executive March/April 2013

Devolved funding and control over transport could offer huge savings as well as improved services, according to a new report by the LGA. Kate Ashley reports.

Devolving transport control to local authorities could deliver over twice the return on investment, the Local Government Association (LGA) has suggested.

A new report, ‘The road to growth: The case for greater local influence over transport’ – was launched on March 6 at an LGA Town Hall Summit on transport devolution, attended by transport minister Norman Baker.

Commissioned by the LGA and conducted by Localis, the report recommends replacing the Highways Agency with sub-regional bodies and combining existing transport funding streams into a single pot that councils can apply to invest in transport and infrastructure projects.

Simplifying funding streams

The LGA highlights the need for Local Transport Bodies (LTBs) to join up with other policy areas, such as planning, housing and health, and tackle the silo mentalities across public sector interventions.

The Government should also create a single pot approach to funding transport infrastructure, to eliminate complexity and obstacles that prevent local authorities from taking more control over their services.

The report recommends that Government should reconsider the future of the Highways Agency and states: “Arguably, an unaccountable middle-man in the form of the Highways Agency is no longer required.”

Creating a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) could be a “significant catalyst” for the infrastructure investment market, the LGA adds.

Local returns

The report says: “We believe that local areas are best able to meet local priorities and work with businesses, public sector and voluntary sector partners to support the development of sustainable communities and growth.

“Greater simplification, and localisation, would help ensure a more strategic, effective approach that can convince the wider markets to invest.

“Local authorities will continue to be the core of English transport governance and, if the Government wishes to move towards successful, more integrated transport arrangements, it will need to strongly consider what influence local government has over this strategic infrastructure.”

The majority of transport funding is currently held centrally, with local government receiving around 10%. And while typical business cases for investment offer a 2:1 return, NAO analysis of local schemes has found that over a quarter offer 5:1 returns.

Removing regional rail from central control is also an LGA recommendation. Successful case studies of governments devolving responsibility for transport include Barcelona and Munich, the report adds, offering examples of best practice if the Government fulfils the localism agenda and decides to devolve more power to local government.

‘Release the reins’

Cllr Peter Box, chair of the LGA’s Economy and Transport Board, said the Government needs to “fully release the reins” to allow local government to release the full potential of transport investment.

He added: “At the moment, investment and innovation is being stifled by a burdensome top-down approach by the Department for Transport and Highways Agency and a confusing and wasteful myriad of different funding.

“Local authorities are already showing they can get far more bang for their buck with transport spending. They’re best placed to manage and invest in roads and integrate buses, trains, trams, cycling schemes and so on to suit the diverse needs of businesses and communities.”

Alex Thomson, chief executive of Localis, said: “The report highlights some of the alternatives to a centralised transport system, with Europe far in advance of the UK in this respect. On the continent, transport devolution is seen as a given. The current Government has been very positive in pursuing a localism agenda across a number of policy areas, and it is time they extended this approach to transport.

“With transport being an essential part of stimulating and maintaining thriving local economies, greater local influence over commissioning and new fl exibilities around infrastructure finance are needed if the Government wants to empower local authorities to get Britain growing again.”

To see how devolved transport is set to offer huge gains for councils in Lancashire, click here, where PSE speaks to Cllr Tim Ashton about the new body, Transport for Lancashire.

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