Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 277)

WEDNESDAY 19 APRIL 2006

CLLR TONY PAGE AND CLLR SHONA JOHNSTONE

  Q260  Mr Chaytor: What is the source of the problem? Is it inadequate estimation by the PTAs or local authorities submitting the schemes or is there some excessive cost inflation in tram schemes that does not apply to any other sector?

  Cllr Page: We have to tread carefully; these are our members.

  Q261  Mr Chaytor: But I am looking for an honest answer.

  Cllr Johnstone: I do not think it would be fair to comment on specific schemes without knowing the full details, but it is certainly the case that inflation within transport industry capital is running ahead of standard inflation; we know that.

  Cllr Page: I think there is a real issue of value for money. Speaking as a recent chairman of a bus company, I would argue that pound for pound investment in improved bus services and guided busways could probably deliver more in terms of improving public transport.

  Q262  Mr Chaytor: That is not what the Transport Select Committee has said. The Transport Select Committee has said pound for pound that light rail is as cost effective as bus routes.

  Cllr Page: Then you have the problem, though, of the timescale for delivery and of course there is, by definition, nothing like the flexibility in light rail that there is in bus services. I think central government has rightly subjected these proposals to a great deal of scrutiny. I am not too sure that all the schemes have necessarily been presented as well as they could have been.

  Q263  Mr Chaytor: Reading does not have a tram scheme in the pipeline, I take it?

  Cllr Page: We do have them planned but they are to be funded by private developers on the back of section 106 agreements. The developments near the M4 are predicated on them providing light rail into town, but those will be funded by developers, so there is no call on the public purse. I think the view the LGA has is that clearly this is a local decision that has to be argued in the context of a package of measures. Simply to say, "This is a light rail scheme; give us the money" is perhaps a bit na-£ve, and some of the schemes seem to have been presented more on that basis. I think the context of the benefits to a wider area needs perhaps to be displayed.

  Q264  Mr Chaytor: So you are not really representing your members' frustrations on this or the members who have submitted light rail schemes? You are distancing the LGA from the individual authorities with particular problems on this point?

  Cllr Page: In the submissions that we have made we have supported the principle of light rail where it can be demonstrated that it provides good value. I think that is the test that has to be applied. Clearly for the Secretary of State that has not been the case in some of the recent schemes.

  Q265  Mr Chaytor: Just coming back to our earlier point about transparency and hypothecation in terms of tax increases and the investment in public transport, do you think one way forward in the light rail log-jam could be that congestion charging schemes should be an essential part of the package, and that would mean that the local authorities submitting a bid for a tram would have to show their commitment and their courage by introducing a congestion scheme and using the revenue in order to part finance the tram schemes?

  Cllr Page: It would have to be part of a wider scheme. There is no way you could put forward a congestion charge scheme simply related to the expansion of light rail.

  Q266  Mr Chaytor: No, a congestion charge scheme for the conurbation in which the new light rail was going to run.

  Cllr Johnstone: I think you would need to be certain that the benefits of the light rail system were spread across the area in which you had a congestion charging scheme. I think I would have a little bit of nervousness in some respects. For example, in my area we are currently awaiting funding decisions on a guided busway scheme. That is going to go along one corridor. It would be very difficult, I think, to implement a congestion charging scheme along that corridor because what you would do is encourage rat-running on to other corridors. I think the principle is sound. The actual implementation and how it would work in practice is far more complex and would need to be worked through very carefully, but I do not have a problem with the linkages.

  Q267  Mr Chaytor: You both focus strongly on the question of integration and the difficulties caused by the 1985 legislation, but you say that you do not want to simply turn the clock back pre-1985. What would be the most important specific powers that transport authorities could be granted that would help to improve the integration of all public transport systems?

  Cllr Page: In terms of the existing operators, if we could have the powers within a statutory Quality Partnership to be able to bring in services and frequencies covering a town or city, that would at a stroke provide us with additional powers that we currently do not have and would put us in a key position that at the moment we have to use voluntary persuasion. Shona said that there have been a number of voluntary partners but they are precisely that. We have no statutory Quality Partnerships operating in England because local authorities do not see them as providing anything of real value to them. If you included services and frequencies, and therefore the ability to be able to co-ordinate, that would certainly give us a much more powerful tool. Ultimately, a franchising regime should also be available to the larger PTAs, and that is something that we include in our toolbox of measures, but what we are saying is that there is no single one-size-fits-all solution to promoting public transport outside of London. Situations vary so enormously we must have the flexibility at local level to choose a number of options, but certainly the recourse to a franchising regime would also deliver that integration and co-ordination.

  Q268  Joan Walley: One area where your members do have a degree of local flexibility is through the local transport plans for which they have responsibility. Looking at the area and the time between now and 2010-11, there will be something like £8 billion worth of capital funding. I would be very interested in your views as to why in the LTPs climate change and carbon reductions have not been made one of the shared priorities that are applying to local authorities when submitting those LTPs?

  Cllr Johnstone: I do not see a problem with it being a shared priority.

  Q269  Joan Walley: But it is not.

  Cllr Johnstone: It is not at present. LTPs have become more and more prescriptive over the years as to what should and should not be included, and perhaps in the next round of LTPs, yes, the Government should be discussing with local authorities how carbon reduction can be part of that shared priority.

  Q270  Joan Walley: In terms of the opportunity to be prescriptive, I am really interested in your views as to whether or not the Government should have been prescriptive about requiring that to be a shared priority because what has been submitted now is going to be paving the way ahead between now and 2010-11, and if we have lost the opportunity to integrate carbon reduction to that extent into the LTP, the Government has missed a trick, has it not?

  Cllr Johnstone: It probably has.

  Cllr Page: It may not feature in the headlines but all local transport plans will include issues of air quality monitoring and the broader issues of pollution, and some authorities are better at this than others. My own authority has monitoring stations for air quality throughout the borough and that is clearly an issue of priority to us. So it not only issues of CO2 and wider climate change, but it is a very important issue for people on the doorstep, and that is the quality of the air that they are breathing locally through something that is monitored and plays an important part in the plan. So I would not want you to think that simply because it is not there in the headline—and I agree with everything Shona has said—it means that local authorities are not focusing on the issues in their own localities.

  Q271  Joan Walley: I would be interested as to whether or not the LGA has done any research or got any feedback from its members as to whether they feel that by including in the LTP the heading "quality of life issues" that gives them sufficient scope to be as innovative as they really would like to be in terms of using that heading as a main priority for carbon reduction?

  Cllr Johnstone: I think there are other opportunities as well as the LTP in bringing forward the sorts of things that you are looking for and those are the local area agreements that are coming forward and the local strategic partnerships. There is a danger of concentrating too much on LTP and LTP money. I think we need to look more broadly across some of the new funding streams coming forward and some of the new priorities coming forward in the local area agreements.

  Q272  Joan Walley: So you would go along with the Government not choosing that to be a priority?

  Cllr Johnstone: I think what I said was that it probably did miss a trick in the current round of LTPs but rather than saying, "Well, there is nothing going to happen now for another few years," we need to be looking at the other areas where there are shared priorities and local area agreements and perhaps we need to be looking towards a more environmental block in some of those coming forward.

  Q273  Chairman: In terms of disincentivising car use, Transport 2000 has suggested that both central government and local authorities could be more imaginative in using "sticks as well as carrots". For example, business rates could be reformed so that you could charge carparking more and shop frontages less, or you could have tax credits for businesses that take up workplace travel plans. Do you have any views about that?

  Cllr Page: I am not too sure that the LGA has expressed a general view. We support the return of the business rate to local authority control. I am not too sure whether within the return of that there would be the sort of flexibility that you have indicated. I am sure we would support the principle of greater flexibility and therefore such proposals, but we do not have an LGA position on that. In terms of the wider incentives, clearly it returns to the question of our ability to be able to put in place and deliver improvements in advance of sticks. I think the key success of London was for the Mayor being able to plan for the improvement of public transport in a way that would be very difficult, in fact nigh on impossible, in the current structure. Admittedly, where there is a single monopoly operator in my own town which is owned by the local authority we have a degree of synergy but of course that does not apply in more than 13 authorities across the country. Elsewhere you have independent bus operators who have their own agenda and their own shareholders to account to, so the scope there is more limited.

  Q274  Ms Barlow: In its section on transport, the Climate Change Programme Review does not include a single mention of the use of planning regulations in cutting down car dependence in new housing or new commercial developments. How significant is this omission?

  Cllr Johnstone: It is extremely significant. I think there are a couple of things there. I would want to highlight or flag up the proposed planning gains supplement as a real issue in terms of the limitations that it would be putting on local authorities in negotiating with developers for better public transport. The idea that this is a tax that is going to be collected centrally and divvied out will certainly not be an incentive to local authorities in planning. Although not specifically around car use, I think there is also an opportunity with the Code on Sustainable Homes. What I would really like to see is that made mandatory for all new building and not just new public buildings. So I think there are some opportunities there and I think that I would be looking to see the Government really working on both of those to provide some better incentives for local authorities with new developments.

  Q275  Ms Barlow: So not only do you feel there are few incentives but actually there are restrictions on forward-thinking local authorities?

  Cllr Johnstone: I think the planning gain supplement is a potential restriction on local authorities and the freedom that local authorities currently have in negotiating section 106 agreements, some of which can be very flexible in terms of alternatives to car use. I think there are some real potential dangers there. Where the Government really could help and could show its teeth is in the Code on Sustainable Homes and all sectors having to build sustainable buildings.

  Q276  Ms Barlow: Finally, you have got the three departments, Transport, ODPM and Defra. How effective do you think they are in providing both a unified and a consistent lead to local authorities, to narrow it down a bit, particularly in the area of sustainable planning?

  Cllr Johnstone: I think that there is sometimes very little evidence of joined-up government between the various departments. I would like to see a lot better integration of government departments in working to provide better public transport, less carbon emissions, and better use and better integration than is currently the case. It is very, very frustrating sometimes as local authorities to see them not working together. If I can give a specific example. We work with DfT in terms of developing travel and integrated transport plans and long-term transport strategies only to see ODPM then come back and insist that we have to take another X thousand houses, which completely throws any transport strategy out of the window because transport strategies are predicated on a certain number of houses in that area. So the two do not work together, and I think that is a very clear example of where government departments are fighting against each other.

  Cllr Page: I would agree with that entirely. Looking at the comments Stephen Joseph made in one of your earlier sessions when he talked about a "disjunction" between the departments, I would wholeheartedly agree with that. There is often little evidence that the Department for Transport takes on board the wider picture, neither do the other departments. I do not know what goes on in Cabinet committees these days, I have never been a member of a Cabinet committee, Cabinet government as such may be pooh-poohed but I was always told that Cabinet committees were to provide the real co-ordination between the various departments. There does not seem to be much evidence of it, certainly at the sharp end in terms of local government, and I think there is a real need for pressure to be brought on departments to look at the implications of the wider climate change agenda and not just pass it off to Defra and say, "It is the words `climate change', that is therefore you." If we functioned at a local government level in the compartmentalised way that departments of state seem to, I think we would be rightly castigated. Coming from a unitary authority that is trying to overcome these departmental boundaries I think I can be reasonably critical of what we see from the departments to which Shona has referred. It is pretty dismal.

  Q277  Chairman: Have any colleagues any further points? I think you will find much to agree with in the report we published last month on sustainable housing.

  Cllr Page: I have not had a chance to read it yet.

  Chairman: I commend it to you. Thank you very much. I am sorry once again we were interrupted by the division but it has been a very helpful session from our point of view, so thank you very much.





 
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