TAPAS.network | 14 November 2022 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Finding funding for sustainable local transport: a tale of three cities

Peter Stonham

HOPES OF LOCAL AUTHORITIES finding new sources of funding for their sustainable transport strategies have been dealt a blow with the news we report in this issue that Leicester City Council has scrapped plans to introduce a workplace parking levy (WPL) next year, citing the current political and economic situation. But it is that very situation – a squeeze on government spending and apparent lack of clarity or resolve at national level to tackle transport challenges in new ways -– that makes grasping the nettle at local level even more urgent.

That there are real benefits in doing so is shown by the publication of an assessment of the performance, since its launch 10 years ago, of Nottingham’s pioneering workplace parking levy, that has raised almost £100m for sustainable transport in the city.

Nottingham City Council says the levy also enabled it to secure “inward investment” of another £1bn in transport, including £570m for the tram network, £200m for electric buses and £60m to transform Nottingham Station as multi-modal interchange. It also enabled 18km of bus lanes to boost the mode’s appeal as a green and efficient travel option and has also paved the way for 300 miles of new or upgraded cycle paths along major roads and the tram. Nottingham City Council says the WPL has, meanwhile, reduced congestion growth by 47%.

“The WPL has inspired a step-change in action on climate change. It has motivated us all to be more environmentally-conscious by looking at our travel needs and their impact on our fellow citizens,” states Cllr Audra Wynter in the report’s foreword. She stresses how the scheme is contributing to Nottingham’s bid to achieve carbon neutrality by 2028.

Another valuable element is the Workplace Travel Service, which provides a free support and grants to businesses in Nottingham to deliver travel planning, car park management, and other initiatives to encourage their employees to travel more sustainably.

It had seemed that Nottingham would act as a model for its East Midlands neighbour, but it appears that a Leicester City council consultation this spring prompted a wave of opposition to the proposed scheme.

Deputy city mayor Cllr Adam Clarke said: “We made a commitment in 2019 to consult on a levy in Leicester, and at that time we could not foresee the political uncertainty and dire economic situation the country is facing today.”

The council felt it could not implement a WPL during the national cost of living crisis facing both people and businesses in the city. Now, without the new funding source, simply maintaining the current levels of service will be a huge challenge, it says.

The council wanted to emulate Nottingham’s WPL, which is claimed to be the only such scheme in Europe, and is definitely the only one in the UK. Indeed, the city is the only area that has found a genuine new way of bringing solid additional funding to its transport plans outside of the London Congestion Charge.

green quotations

Car drivers may complain a lot, but the fact is they are the minority. They key is to win over the silent majority, and the way to do that is to come across as rational and fair, and to do what you say you will do. The streets aren’t getting wider. The population is rising. We can’t carry on as we are.

Jonas Eliasson, former director of the
Stockholm City Transport Administration

Leicester’s elected mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, had seemed dedicated to emulating that achievement. He told LTT in September 2019, following his re-election, of his determination to introduce a WPL. The levy would pay for a quality bus service for the city, he said, with a mechanism which would have generated £450m over 10 years. Now, he says, significant and reliable ongoing funding to meet the long-term aims for Leicester’s transport is not going to be available.

“As it stands, severe Government spending restrictions already in place mean we have a shortfall in our budget of many tens of millions, and it’s likely the chancellor is about to announce further cuts to public services. This means we will be taking difficult decisions on all council services including transport over the next few months. We can only hope that before too long there will be a Government in place that will have the vision to transform public transport in this country, and will provide the funds to do it.”

Sir Peter should not hold his breath. Not only is a General Election still two years away, but there is no certainty at all that a new Labour Government would be able to find the money he wants, or what its transport policy would be.

His is not the first city to meet well-organised opposition to new transport charging plans. Both Edinburgh and Manchester put their own plans to public determination, in 2005 and 2008 respectively – and had to then pull back from implementing them. A 12-week consultation carried out by Leicester City Council at the start of this year generated more than 4,000 responses, with many respondents citing ‘unfairness’ of the WPL and describing it as a ‘stealth tax’. Others questioned why the levy should be paid on top of Business Rates or general vehicle taxes.

Some of those that live outside of the city boundary argued they would not see a direct benefit in new travel alternatives, and would still have to use their cars. Another concern was that commuter parking would be displaced into residential areas, whilst employers feared recruitment and staff retention implications.

Three years ago, however, Sir Peter Soulsby told LTT that he saw his re-election for a third time as representing a “green light” to press ahead with his plans for the levy. “The workplace parking levy was something that was very clearly flagged up in our manifestos as a party and my manifesto as mayor. It was something that was debated during the campaign so people couldn’t be unaware of it.”

The draft Leicester Transport Plan (LTP), subsequently published in 2021, saw the levy as paying for more than 400 “high quality electric tram-like buses” by 2030, operating on 25 ‘Mainline’ services across city neighbourhoods and five express ‘Greenlines’ commuter services. Revenue from the levy would enable new bus priority routes “delivering reliable services at a good frequency, integrated timetables and multi-operator digital ticketing across services and quality waiting facilities with real time displays”.

A WPL would have paid for “affordable bus fares with discounts for elderly, disabled, young and unemployed people and the ability for all travellers to get the ‘best fare’ on any journeys across the city,” stated the LTP. The levy would also have funded a city-wide network of cycleways, connected healthy neighbourhoods, supported the introduction of electric vehicles, flexible on-demand services and ‘15 minute neighbourhoods’ with quick and easy access to local facilities.

Dropping the scheme now must be a matter of bitter regret to Sir Peter – as it will be to many transport planning professionals who would like to see such schemes adopted more widely in the next generation of Local Transport Plans.

A year before Soulsby pledged to bring a WPL to Leicester, LTT had carried a feature about Stockholm’s congestion charge in which Jonas Eliasson, the man behind the scheme as director of the Stockholm City Transport Administration, had explained how “the most hated political reform in Sweden’s history” went on to win over the public and change travel behaviour in the 20 plus years since its launch.

Since its controversial introduction, the congestion charge scheme has proved remarkably effective at suppressing traffic levels and encouraging a shift to other modes of transport. After initially facing widespread public opposition, it now has majority support, even among those who regularly pay the charge. Eliasson vividly recalled the uproar around its launch in 2006.

Eliasson has a message for local politicians who may feel intimidated by the opponents of such schemes. “Car drivers may complain a lot, but the fact is they are the minority. The key is to win over the silent majority, and the way to do that is to come across as rational and fair, and to do what you say you will do. The streets aren’t getting wider. The population is rising. We can’t carry on as we are. So, it makes sense to run a congestion charging trial. That way, you can at least try it first and see what happens. As long as what you are doing is consistent with your aims and your overall motivation.”

That kind of thinking appears to lie behind the detailed plans just announced by the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) for a Sustainable Travel Zone, with London-style bus network and active travel improvements. There will be new bus routes, with additional orbital and express services serving key sites across the city, and a major increase in services for villages and market towns, along with walking and cycling upgrades, ahead of the introduction of road pricing in the city. The plans would be paid for upfront by the GCP from its Government City Deal funding, and phased in over four years ahead of the proposed introduction of a road user charge to fund the package in the longer term (LTT 10 Jan 2021).

All vehicle movements into, out of, and within the proposed Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ) would eventually pay a flat daily charge between 7am and 7pm on weekdays, though with discounts, exemptions and reimbursements for those on low incomes and blue badge holders. The money generated by the zone, which would not be fully introduced until 2027/28, would be ring-fenced for investment in the transport network. GCP’s City Deal money would be used to pay for and set up the network.

Cllr Elisa Meschini, chair of the GCP’s Executive Board, said: “We have reached a crossroads when it comes to tackling congestion on our region’s busy roads, air quality and climate change, particularly with COP27 fresh in all our minds. A shift away from cars can only happen if we provide a better and sustainable transport system.”

So, that was why GCP is proposing a London-style service, to begin before the new road user charging scheme comes in. Support from the City Deal is described as a once in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform life and travel around Greater Cambridge, and the authority is doing its best to make the case for it – including detailed online information about how the improved bus services would help individual users.

As Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, commented: “Improving local public transport alongside some form of demand management is part of the toolbox for promoting that transition... With a commitment to invest at the same time in active travel infrastructure, simpler ticketing and a better bus fleet, the aim is for many residents to have more attractive choices about how to get around.”

And hopefully produce increased ridership and revenue in the long term that can replace the ‘pump priming’ and time-limited initial central government support.

Imaginative mechanisms are required to achieve change, and for local transport the answer seems to be a proper structured partnership between local and national government to provide the right combination of carrot and stick. Perhaps Sir John’s Commission could be put in charge of a modest bit of investment funding to support carefully prepared transitional plans of the kind being pursued in Cambridge, and which might have helped Sir Peter’s authority in Leicester bring their transformational plans into being.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT857, 14 November 2022.

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