Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 19 APRIL 2006
Q240 Chairman: You are very welcome
to the Committee. Perhaps we could start off on a slightly general
point. The LGA made a submission to the Climate Change Programme
Review last year and made a submission to the Energy Review. Can
you summarise your general approach in relation to those two reviews?
Cllr Johnstone: Yes, what the
LGA was talking about with the Energy Review is that transport
policy needs to be geared around emission reductions rather more
explicitly than it is at present because any rises in this sector
might offset any reductions elsewhere. We would want to see policies
that are encouraging more public transport services. We accept
that in rural areas that is always going to be economically more
difficult, so possibly the solution for rural areas might be better,
more efficient, low-carbon, alternative fuel vehicles. I think
possibly I would also like to see more in terms of demand-responsive
transport rather than the traditional double-decker bus running
around full of air. Also we would like to see greater links between
air quality and climate change issues in relation to transport
as well as in planning and development.
Cllr Page: As a long-standing
member of my own local authority's planning committee I find it
increasingly frustrating that we are unable to see step change
improvements in energy efficiencyuse of solar panels, greater
use of grey water as a matter of courserequired of developers.
It is still lamentable that we as local authorities have to beg
and encourage developers. Occasionally they will offer something
as good practice which should be required nationally. There should
be a national playing field that requires much higher standards
across the board and we as local authorities should not have to
be in a position of having to beg, and that really is, I think,
something that we have been pressing very strongly on ministers
in recent months.
Q241 Chairman: I think we are sympathetic
to that sort of frustration ourselves. We have seen it in other
inquiries. Now you have seen the Climate Change Programme Review
do you have a view about what it said about transport?
Cllr Page: In terms of the benefits
from greater use of public transport, clearly what has been achieved
in London is something that is impressive and the linkage between
increased public transport and improved air qualityand
you heard earlier from TfL the 20% reduction in CO2
emissionsis something that we regard as extremely laudable.
The key point that we would want to make to you, particularly
those of you who are members of non-London constituencies who
will perhaps appreciate this more, is that the deregulated framework
for providing public transport out of London is a major obstacle
to achieving these sorts of improvements. What has been achieved
in London by the Mayor is not achievable anywhere else in this
country because there is no other authority or individual elsewhere
in Britain who has the comparable powers to those vested in the
Mayor of London. That is why I believe and why the LGA believes,
and has been advocating to ministers, the need for enhanced powers
to local authorities outside of London, in order to be able to
deliver those sorts of improvements. If you introduced a congestion
charge anywhere else outside of London, you as that local authority
would be hard-pressed to be able to deliver the prior improvements
in public transport and also to reap the benefits of extra bums
on seats on the buses because the money would go off to the privately-owned
bus companies and you as a local authority have no power through
the current regime to be able to take any of those benefits that
would accrue from congestion charging. Until the Government rises
to the challenge that the Transport Select Committee has been
constantly making about the need for more regulation, not necessarily
the London system, not necessarily a pre-1985 system but a greater
measure of re-regulation, I fear that we will not be able to deliver
those sorts of improvements outside of London.
Q242 Joan Walley: That is exactly
the point I wanted to pick up with you. You say those greater
powers are needed but if you look at the increase that there has
been in London in terms of bus usesomething like 32%despite
what you have just said, there are some towns or areas around
the country where there has been perhaps not as big as London
but nonetheless a particularly big increase in bus usage. What
is it that those local authorities are doing to get that increased
bus usage even within the constraints under which they are operating,
including that of deregulation, which I think we will come on
to in a moment?
Cllr Page: These are essentially
isolated examples and the percentage increases are pretty minimal
when you set them in the context of the lengthy decline over the
last 20 years. Until recently I was the chairman of a municipal
bus company in Reading, which is historically good bus territory,
as are most of the other places that are cited by ministers. These
are areas where traditionally buses have been well embedded in
the local community and they have survived in spite of the deregulated
system; they have not been delivering their achievements because
of it. The picture that we need to look at is the wider picture
of decline outside of London.
Cllr Johnstone: If I could just
add to that, coming from an area that has seen quite a staggering
increase in bus growth, I think there are a number of key factors
that I would say are special. One of those is very strong partnership
with bus companies, where you can build up a strong partnership,
where the bus companies can see the potential win/win in terms
of increased dividends for their shareholders, if you like, combined
with some high-quality systems and an emphasis on quality, an
emphasis on information, and an emphasis on providing a service
rather than just running a bus. There are many bus companies which
are very good at running buses but they do not know an awful lot
about providing a service and they are very different. So attractive
forms of public transport, park and ride systems for example,
substantial bus priority on radial routes, and also some hard
measures within city centres to stop the private car coming into
the city centre, where you have got all those in place there you
can see some real improvements. To quote what TfL was saying that
people who would never have dreamt of getting a bus now do it
as a matter of routine because they know it reliable, they know
it is frequent, and they know it provides good value for money.
When you have those elements in place then you will see a difference.
Q243 Joan Walley: From the LGA's
perspective, can some of the areas that have seen an increase
in bus usage be put down to the existence of PTAs?
Cllr Page: I stand to be corrected,
Chairman, but I think the sharpest decline in bus patronage has
been in the PTA areas over the last 20 years, so I do not think
the PTAs would ascribe to themselves as having sufficient powers,
and indeed Councillor Mark Dowd, the chair of Merseytravel is
forever lamenting the fact that he has to deal with over 60 bus
operators. Whilst I agree with the point Shona has just made that
partnership working is easier to achieve where there is a monopoly
or only a couple of bus operators, it is impossible to achieve
when you are dealing with dozens of them, many of them operating
only over a relatively small area. I think the PTAs would certainly
support the LGA's call for additional powers to be given to them
to secure greater stability in the network. The one thing of course
that the Mayor is able to deliver through TfL is stability because
he commissions and determines through TfL the network, the frequencies
and the services, all of which are outwith the control of local
authorities outside of London, other than on the 15% of the network
which are tendered services. The 85% commercially operated services
are precisely that; they are commercially operated, and we as
local authorities have no control over those.
Q244 Joan Walley: In respect of what
Government could do, you are saying extra powers rather than using
the powers that are there at the moment?
Cllr Page: We fully support what
the Transport Select Committee has said on umpteen occasions and
that is the need for additional powers to be given to local authorities,
particularly in terms of things like Quality Partnerships where
currently things like services, fares, frequencies and networks
are outwith Quality Partnerships. We believe they should be brought
in to Quality Partnerships as an essential part of delivering
stability across the network.
Q245 Mark Pritchard: Even without
new powers and perhaps reintroducing monopoly in bus services,
would you agree with me that the tens of thousands of local government
officers up and down the land taking political leadership from
whatever political party might be a good place to start vis-a"-vis
those workers actually travelling to work by forms of public transport?
If you go to many councils throughout the country you will find
a lot of the parking bays in the town centre taken up by local
government employees. It is quite surprising how many councils
do not have a strategic green travel plan of their own, despite
the fact that they require one for any major and substantial planning
application from the private sector. What about leading from the
front, what is your view on that?
Cllr Johnstone: I think that many
local authorities are already leading from the front in terms
of developing green travel plans among their own staff and encouraging
alternatives such as tele-working, homeworking, hot-desking and
that sort of thing, to reduce the amount of travel. I wonder if
I could ask very tongue in cheek whether the House of Commons
has its own green travel plan because trying to bring my bike
in here this afternoon was more difficult than trying to get it
on a train.
Q246 Mark Pritchard: Chairman, just
for the record I enjoy using the bus every morning. However, we
are asking the questions today, I am sorry. Chairman, I have not
had an answer to that question and I thought the questions were
coming from us to you rather than the other way round, so I would
be grateful if you would answer.
Cllr Johnstone: I am sorry, I
thought I was answering the question when I said my experience
is that local authorities are leading from the front, they are
implementing green travel plans, and they are doing alternatives
like tele-working, hot-desking, and encouraging alternatives.
I think local authorities are leading from the front. Perhaps
we are not explicit enough about how we are doing it but we certainly
are doing it.
Cllr Page: I certainly do not
recognise the caricature that was just given of local authorities.
Inevitably there are some that do not have green travel plans
and I would not defend those for a moment. I would suggest that
virtually all the larger authorities do have them. As for parking
on streets, I would be interested to know what examples there
are. Certainly there are key workers for local authorities who
sometimes have to use their cars and are required to use their
cars, but in the main most local authorities have been driving
down the use of the private car amongst their employees, and that
is their committed policy. The LGA is a large trade association
and we obviously cannot answer for every single authority, but
if you have got any examples of recalcitrant local authorities
in this field I would be more than happy to parade them on your
Q247 Ms Barlow: I am not describing
a recalcitrant local authority but I was interested in what you
are saying, particularly in light of Brighton & Hove as one
of the examples of places where bus use has expanded greatly.
You were you talking about an overall travel plan and the importance
of things like park and ride and light transport systems within
an overall plan. Do you find that local authorities are stymied
to a certain extent by cross-regional bodies, for example, the
train companies in our neck of the woods in the south-east of
England have stopped people from being able to take bicycles on
peak time trains? Can you see any way in which, for example, the
Government or you as an association could bring pressure to bear
on, say, the rail companies or other transport authorities which
would help far-seeing local authorities like Brighton & Hove?
Cllr Johnstone: It is certainly
very frustrating when you see train operators banning bikes from
trains which then immediately pushes more traffic on to the roads.
We have seen train companies do that. I think that the key message
that the LGA would like to be putting across is the need for better
integration of all forms of public transport, to encourage better
cycle parking at stations, more secure cycle parking, opportunities
for bike hire at stations, better integration between bus and
rail so that the bus does not leave five minutes before the train
comes in, and for integrated timetables. Yes, we have all seen
it. It is about better working together and I think that is what
we would like to be seeing from the LGA side.
Cllr Page: But none of that of
course can be achieved without at the end having some authority
responsible for delivering that integration. A deregulated system
simply does not deliver that. Somebody has to hold the ring at
the end of the day. Can I just add the other problem that stymies
local authorities is the often unrealistic boundaries under which
we labour. Coming from a densely-populated town with tight boundaries
such as Reading, we are unable to deliver our park and ride strategy
because the necessary sites happen to be outside the town. That
is a problem that Norwich has and many other towns and cities
have around the country. Whether that requires an extension of
boundaries or some sort of PTA equivalent for those areas is debatable,
but one thing is sure, that the current boundaries of local government
do not facilitate the development of park and ride schemes.
Q248 Colin Challen: The Audit Commission
and National Audit Office has exposed the fact that not a single
local authority has put in place a Quality Contract. Why is that?
Do you think it is right that the Government should rely on Quality
Contracts as part of its Climate Change Programme?
Cllr Page: I missed the start
of that with the bell.
Q249 Colin Challen: Not a single
local authority has put in place Quality Contracts.
Cllr Johnstone: There are a number
of areas where there are Quality Partnerships and my understanding
is that the Quality Contracts are a last resort. I think where
Quality Partnerships work well that is the right approach because
I think partnership rather than enforcement, where partnership
works, is a better approach. That is where I think it has worked
quite well in some cases but in others it does not go far enough.
Cllr Page: This is where the political
divide may become apparent. Those of us who favour a more regulated
system would argue the reason that Quality Contracts have not
appeared is because the hurdles are too steep. They are legally
an horrendous prospect and the recent joint National Audit Office
and Audit Commission Report highlighted that. The LGA is putting
forward a number of alternatives to those statutory Quality Contracts
that would allow local authorities to be able to apply a range
of options to their own localities that would better fit with
their local circumstances, but the key element is that we need
powers to be able to bring together services and frequencies and
to be able to integrate with other forms of public transport,
and those we do not currently have.
Chairman: We will have to suspend for
a few minutes. We will resume as soon as we have got a quorum.
The Committee suspended from 4.26pm to
4.36 pm for a division in the House.
Chairman: Right, I think we have a quorum.
We were in the middle of dealing with Quality Contracts and you
had just finished giving an answer. Ed, do you want to crack on?
Q250 Mr Vaizey: Can I say how much
I am enjoying this evidence session and I quite agree with you
about the gloomy things going on with cycling. I do not want to
name and shame my council but there were some quite good photographs
in Oxfordshire of cycle lanes going round lamp posts or having
lamp posts in the middle of them, which is even more unhelpful.
I want to talk about money. First of all, we obviously have one
of the least subsidised if not the least subsidised bus services
in Europe. Should we increase the subsidies? If the answer is
yes, do you have any kind of ball-park figure in mind or percentage
or anything like that?
Cllr Page: These would be personal
views. I do not think the LGA has a collective position on this.
Clearly this is relating to outside of London because of course
there is a substantial subsidy going in in London. I think the
point that I made earlier is a key one, that at the moment we
do not have the legal framework for actually being able to inject
those subsidies in a structured way that could actually deliver
the outcome that you have in London. So even if there were a limitless
kitty you would be hard-pushed within the current regime to be
able to deliver the sort of substantial improvements that I think
you and I would want to see. I would therefore say that there
is a choice between expanding existing services and looking at
developing new services. The Government has had a commendable
record in terms of kick-start and rural initiatives for developing
and trialling buses, and I think that is continuing to go ahead.
So I would say the priority has to be to look to channelling money
into improving existing services as a precursor towards a more
substantial modal shift. Whether that then takes the form of congestion
charging or some other initiative, that has to be taken together,
and we therefore need the framework to be able to deliver that
outside of London.
Cllr Johnstone: Again speaking
personally, there are a number of different scenarios. Rural bus
services could be a bottomless pit of subsidy if you chose to
go down that route. I do not think I could support that sort of
level of subsidy. There are a number of urban areas where clearly
you do not need subsidies because they are self-sufficient. I
think that there is a grey area in between where the Government
might want to consider more in terms of pump-priming services,
services which at the moment are not commercially viable but certainly
with the right level of initial support have the potential to
be commercial in future. I can quote a local example where we
did that between Haverhill and Cambridge where a service that
was running hourly we ran half hourly, which within six months
was not only running half hourly but every 20 minutes in the peak
and had gone from single to double-decker and is now a very, very
successful commercial service. That had some pump-priming. If
you could do that along a number of radial routes that could make
a big difference in terms of the modal shift from private car
to public transport. I think that would be the area I would be
looking to government to invest in more rather than the bottomless
pit, as I say, of rural bus services which you will never ever
be able to run commercially.
Q251 Mr Vaizey: That is quite interesting
because I was going to ask you about Government funding for local
authorities. The Climate Change Programme Review states that the
Government has increased spending on bus lanes and Rural Bus Grants
and the Urban Bus Challenge. Again personally speaking, in Oxfordshire
I do not think we find much of that money filters through. I just
wondered whether you felt that the Government as it has stated
its case there is being accurate? Is there a lot of extra money
around for these sorts of initiatives?
Cllr Johnstone: I think there
has been quite a lot of extra money and again speaking personally
I have seen the benefits of that. My concern has been that a lot
of these have been short term with no certainty of continuing.
For example, the initial rural bus grant was only for three years
and we are faced with a prospect of possibly having to end all
these bus services that we were putting on with the rural bus
grant if they were not commercial viable, which is why we invested
in pump-priming rather than rural services that would never ever
become commercially viable. I think what I would like to see is
more certainty in long-term funding for some of these sorts of
Cllr Page: We have been well endowed
with capital monies over the last few years. It is capital rich
and revenue poor and that has been the cry from all local authorities,
particularly those responsible for transport. That is still the
case. However, it is interesting on things like congestion charging
that you do not actually need government grants to roll out congestion
charging because the set-up costs could be covered out of the
new prudential borrowing regime that local authorities have. The
capital costs could easily be set against future revenue income
streams from congestion charging, so that is not the issue for
local authorities. Funding the set-up of congestion charging could
be done in that way. It is delivering that wider package of improvements
that eludes us and it is that absence of the framework of powers
that you have in London that we need to see applied, to a greater
or lesser extent, elsewhere in England.
Q252 Mr Vaizey: What about the Bus
Service Operators Grant which other people have criticised because
it does not, they feel, incentivise bus companies to move over
to low carbon systems?
Cllr Page: The Commission for
Integrated Transport did a very detailed investigation into the
future of the BSOG a few years ago. I sat on that on behalf of
the LGA and the general consensus was that departing from the
current regime would inevitably produce winners and losers, and
the Government's fear, quite genuinely, was that whilst they accepted
that there were arguments for changing and incentivising, that
would inevitably cause losers. One thing the DfT is very, very
wary about is destabilising the system in an unpredictable way.
That produces a great argument for inertia. I think the sentiments
are very laudable but when you look at the practicalities it is
very difficult, particularly if you have got a cash-limited sum.
If you are willing to incentivise the system and literally let
the system take the money off your hands then I am sure you could
devise a system but the Chancellor, I think, would have other
views on that.
Q253 Chairman: We have seen bus fares
going up and the cost of motoring going down. The Department seems
to be relying on this new Transport Innovation Fund to address
that gap. Do you think that is a sensible way to do it?
Cllr Page: No is the short answer.
Cllr Johnstone: Again, I think
it is one of these funds where there is no guarantee of stability
of long-term funding. Again, it is about the split between capital
and revenue. I think there are some real issues that need to be
addressed with the Transport Innovation Fund.
Cllr Page: It is essentially back-loaded
and I think it skirts round some of the fundamental shortfalls
and failings to which we have alluded. I think if the Government
is serious about addressing problems in the PTA areas they have
to look at powers as well. Powers and structures go hand-in-hand
in this debate. The debate about city regions is an interesting
one because that at least recognises that the existing boundaries
are not suitable for planning the future growth and development,
particularly in a sustainable fashion, of many of our towns and
cities. Whether the Government is going to have the courage to
be able to move forward and give us the appropriate powers, I
do not know. I think TIF without a change in powers and structures
is not going to deliver.
Q254 Chairman: The Department said
that the two main objectives of the fund would be tackling congestion
and improving productivity. Do you think it would be helpful if
they added reducing carbon emissions alongside those two?
Cllr Page: Absolutely.
Q255 Mr Chaytor: Just pursuing the
point about the difference between the cost of private motoring
and the cost of public transport. Some years ago the Government
abandoned the fuel duty escalator with the pledge that any future
above-inflation increase in fuel duty would be hypothecated towards
investment in public transport. Since that pledge there has been
no above-inflation rise in fuel duty. Would this be a suitable
means of dealing with the problem you described of being capital
rich but revenue poor if the Government were to once again, either
for a definite period of time or as a one-off, introduce a fuel
duty rise above inflation and ring fence it to local government
for public transport investment?
Cllr Johnstone: When you are using
carrots along with the sticks, it is much more acceptable from
a public point of view than simply the stick of the escalator,
so I would support linking the two together and that might well
help if it were injected into revenue funding.
Q256 Mr Chaytor: So the stick of
the escalator translated into the carrot of more revenue support
for your authorities?
Cllr Johnstone: Yes. Certainly
the experience that I have is that where we have introduced the
stick of stopping private motorists coming into the city centre
but accompanying it with the carrot of better public transport,
of a new park and ride or whatever, that has been much more acceptable
than simply the stick, and whilst the public may not particularly
like it they can understand the reasons for it and they can see
that there are benefits on the other side.
Q257 Mr Chaytor: But has the LGA
made any representations to the Treasury about the fuel duty escalator?
Cllr Page: We made it on a broader
front. We did a specific inquiry into the whole issue of road
pricing and have made a lengthy submission to the Government about
this. The key issue relating to road pricing and to the point
you are making is the need for transparency because the public
are rightly sceptical about national governments saying, "We
are increasing your taxes from X", and then it disappearing
into a black hole. One of the successes that the Mayor has had
in London is being able to link clearly the congestion charge
into a recycling towards public transport. Insufficient has been
generated from the congestion charge but what has been raised
goes into public transport and that is clearly demonstrable. It
is this key issue of being able to put in place improvements,
levying a charge through whatever meansit could be through
fuel duty or congestion chargeand then displaying that
that money is going back into supporting improvements and delivering
further improvements. That is the key virtuous circle that you
have to display to the public. I am not sure that central government
can necessarily do that and therefore the mechanism has to be
done at a local level. I support a national congestion charging
scheme, as does the LGA, but it is predicated on that need for
revenue neutrality and transparency. If you can deliver that and
show it then I think you can carry the public a long way down
Q258 Mr Chaytor: Could I change tack
away from fuel duty and talk about trams a little bit. Six years
ago in the 10-Year Transport Plan the Government envisaged 25
new tram schemes by the end of the decade. How many of those do
you think will be in place by 2010?
Cllr Johnstone: Very few, for
various reasons mostly down to, I think, cost.
Q259 Mr Chaytor: When you say cost
do you mean changing costs or poor estimates of cost?
Cllr Johnstone: Rising costs,