TAPAS.network | 19 September 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Dis-integration: Professionals’ thinking meets political reality

Peter Stonham

TRANSPORT PROFESSIONALS talk a lot about integrated policy, by which they mean planning and operating the different modes to maximise the overall societal benefit, and the ease and efficiency for individual users in terms of time, cost, comfort, safety and accessibility.

It is a persuasive theory, but to understand it requires a considerable grounding in both conceptual and detailed thinking that most non-transport experts simply do not have or even recognise as significant. And examples of how it all works in practice are thin on the ground.

The best demonstration of the implementation of such an approach is probably what happens in Greater London, something aspired to elsewhere, for example by Greater Manchester, and what has been developed for Greater Cambridge. That is carefully set out in the plan Keeping Greater Cambridge Moving: The case for the Cambridge Sustainable Travel Zone and its benefits for Greater Cambridge which was last updated only a few weeks ago, but now seems in deep trouble, as we report in this issue. As in London, the integrated policies for both Manchester and Cambridge envisaged a London-style congestion charge. A similar plan in Edinburgh was rejected in a local vote in 2005, Manchester’s bit the dust likewise in 2008, and Cambridge’s looks like going the same way now.

Following public consultation, the latest iteration of the Cambridge plan has considerably watered down arrangements for collecting revenue from drivers entering the Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ) to pay for improved public transport. In her foreword, Rachel Stoppard, chief executive of the Greater Cambridge Partnership, makes the case. “The roads of Greater Cambridge are congested. We have legally binding carbon reduction targets to meet. We urgently need to find an alternative to car travel, but we know our public transport infrastructure isn’t good enough. The future of our growing city as a global centre of excellence is at risk. This was why a City Deal was signed and we now have the opportunity to act,” she says.

“With Making Connections, we are setting out a proposal for significant change to our transport network. With this scale of change, we recognise how important it is to talk and listen to local people who live and work in Greater Cambridge to help refine proposals. That’s why our series of public consultations — where residents and community groups shared their views — have been instrumental in shaping the plans we are now putting to decision makers. 

“There is no denying that 58% of respondents opposed the original Cambridge Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ) proposal. And so, we listened, and adapted. We have reduced the number of hours the STZ will be in place from 12 to six; we have widened exemptions for those who need it most and we have introduced 50 free days per year for car users.

“We have made adjustments whilst - crucially - ensuring we can still deliver a plan that will finance the improvements to transport infrastructure the city needs. We know residents want more bus services, with less congestion and better value fares. We know they are open to finding alternatives to car travel. So, we are confident that our new and updated proposal has the potential to deliver improvements that will see Cambridge retain its position as a leading global city, and provide a better, fairer and more affordable transport system our residents are asking for.”

Under the revised and slightly watered-down plans for a congestion charge, car users would still pay £5 per day to drive in the city, but this would only apply during peak hours, with drivers given 50 ‘free days’. The scaled-back plans would raise £26m per year - rather than the £50m originally sought - to fund an improved new bus network. The scheme was intended to be in place by 2026.

“The opportunity is now, and it is clear. I’m recommending this revised Making Connections scheme, including the updated STZ proposal, is supported by decision makers, for its ability to safeguard the future of Greater Cambridge and improve the quality of life of all those who live and work here,” Stoppard said last month.

Sadly, it hasn’t taken long for those decision makers in two of the three constituent authorities in Greater Cambridge - the Liberal Democrats in South Cambridgeshire District and Labour in Cambridge City - to reject the proposals, which prompted demonstrations and rallies being held in support of and in opposition to the idea. The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP), the sponsor of the proposal, is a body of councils, businesses and academia, without itself having decision making and delivery powers.

The third council in the mix, Cambridgeshire County Council, was once Conservative controlled and in favour of the scheme, but is now under No Overall Control and run by an administration of LibDems, Labour and Independents.

For all its potential attributes, it has to be said that most citizens (and many politicians) don’t really understand integrated transport policy. They understand individual bits of modal policy, like the capacity and condition of the roads, the experience and frustrations of driving, the quality of the buses, the state of the railways and the level of fares, the cost of parking and the controversies of enforcement, and the annoyance of problems at the airports.

Nor is it part of the general conversation to look at the indirect cost and externalities of any transport option, let alone what ‘the true cost’ of it should be, bearing in mind a bigger picture equation embracing matters like climate change and air quality.

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The idea of taking a grand overview of where the transport system fits into the wider social and economic framework, and how the different pieces of it should relate to one another has only rarely been tackled.

Meanwhile, the public financing of transport is probably a mystery to most people, who leave it to the Government and the various statutory authorities to implement the de facto mandate the British public have given them to exercise this responsibility. Sometimes the tax elements become a subject of debate, but the flows of money are opaque, and we do not have in the UK any substantive history of clearly hypothecated distribution of revenues or funding streams, as there are in some other countries at either national or local levels, for example, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the USA. 

Rather than the pursuit of strategic and integrated public policy on transport provision, it has been defined over the years by a series of modally-led policy approaches like Roads to Prosperity, and The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail.

The approach we have taken has not, it must be said, been a total failure, having given us certain things that other countries do not always have, including a high level road system with low user costs that has made it possible for the freight and retail sector to create a complex distribution network based on approaches such as just-in-time logistics.

This has meant an effective equivalent access to food and consumer goods in every populated part of the UK. Alongside this, the comparative choices for home and work locations by both businesses and individuals have been underpinned by both the ‘free’ road network and a rail system designed to facilitate commuting into London, and other inter-urban journeys connecting the capital and other major cities.

The idea of taking a grand overview of where the transport system fits into the wider social and economic framework, and how the different pieces of it should relate to one another has only rarely been tackled. Notably for urban transport by the Buchanan report, Traffic in Towns, in 1963, and for the system as a whole by the White Paper produced by John Prescott for the new Labour Government, A New deal for Transport: Better for everyone, in 1998. 

The idea that there should be the transfer of some money collected from one transport source, and given to another to equalise the system’s overall benefit, has hardly been seen as an acceptable measure any more than the aforementioned concept of hypothecation of such money to even a directly related purpose.

It has been tried with parking charges and fines, earmarked for wider transport purposes, but people resent it and see it as a money grab. Indeed, all charges and fees that are not paying for a service are treated with huge suspicion — including speed camera fines, residential parking permits, the congestion charge in London, and most recently Clean Air Zone and Ultra Low Emission Zone charges.

A careful and detailed understanding of the expert thinking behind the logic of a measure like imposing a charge to enter an area and calling in it a congestion charge is essential. Without this, something that might be very clear in intention to the professionals, easily becomes in the minds of the public, at best just an extra charge to drive, and at worst, a money-raising racket. The ULEZ or CAZ, would probably also be described by most people as sitting in the same unappetising box as ‘road-user charging’, rather than ‘environment and health improvement’ funding.

And even if these penalties on ‘dirty vehicles’ were accepted as part of a plan to encourage people to switch to non-polluting alternatives like electric cars, might those affected not argue that when the additional cost of that switch has been incurred by them to avoid the ULEZ or CAZ charge, the transport chiefs will come back for more with another impost to plug the fast-increasing hole in the road fuel tax revenue flow, and put an extra cost on the ‘clean vehicles’ anyway? 

“You are fining us to get us to buy electric vehicles, then as soon as we have bought them, you will be charging us to use them as well!” could be the cry.

As is evidenced by what happened in Manchester, 15 years ago, and now in Cambridge, people find it equally unconvincing (and unwelcome) to imagine the common sense in taking some money from motorists and giving it to public transport, which is what the Cambridge plan was overtly intended to do.

Apart from the financial penalty of charging one activity to raise funds for another, there is also the parallel issue of the restrictions and perceived impacts of regulating transport use by controlling where and when people are allowed to drive.

This has been crystallised in some reactions to Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes, and by the imposition of lower speed limits, like the general 20mph urban area limit just introduced in Wales, which seems to have opened up a further new political battleground in transport policy.

Apart from the obvious objections by individual drivers to being restricted in this way, other issues being brought up include the negative trade-offs as well as the positive one, such as the 20mph, slowing down buses, making it more expensive to provide services and threatening cuts in services. 

The forthcoming General Election does not look like the ideal opportunity to be discussing the need for integrated transport policy with all the implicit trade-offs, let alone the even wider issues of land-use and transport integration, including more travel-sustainable housing location and design. The same applies to the impacts of ever-growing air travel, which the new Net Zero and Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho has just introduced into the debate echoing much of the Prime Minister’s recent language as she said that policies had to “take people with you”.

The UK only accounted for one per cent of global emissions, she said, and, “Put simply, we can’t do this alone, and hard-working families should not be forced to change their lives or have extra financial burdens put on them”. The newly appointed minister has said that “pragmatic policies” are needed to get the UK to net zero. It comes amid reports, that the Prime Minister is carrying out an “audit” of net zero policies ahead of the next general election.

The Labour Party leadership seems equally cautious about radical transport interventions that seek changes in individual travel behaviour, and the position of the Liberal Democrats is not much different, judging by the recent decision of the South Cambridgeshire council that it runs effectively blowing the Cambridge Plan out of the water.

As for much of the last century, it seems that London again stands out as very different in the way transport is run and paid for, perhaps because it is also different as a demographic and economic and social unit, and has a more radical tradition for reform and experimentation. It is not at all easy to see what has happened in London to also be taken up other places, even those such as Cambridge, or Oxford, with their own radical traditions, least of all when it involves having a congestion charge and a CAZ or ULEZ.

But if these other places can’t be like London, is there a reasonable alternative approach for them to follow in the current climate? Sub-optimal maybe in the eyes of transport professionals, but politically acceptable, achievable - and affordable.

Waiting for people to ‘get the message’ about sensibly developed integrated policies is an option, of course. But it looks set to be a long and frustrating one. Taking some smaller, simpler steps along the way might be a better bet. Cambridge will doubtless now be looking for what they should usefully be.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTTmagazine, LTT876, 19 September 2023.

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