Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  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 efficiency—use of solar panels, greater use of grey water as a matter of course—required 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 quality—and you heard earlier from TfL the 20% reduction in CO2 emissions—is 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 use—something 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 behalf.

  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 services.

  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 means—it could be through fuel duty or congestion charge—and 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 this road.

  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, yes.

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