Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by the South West Public Transport Users Forum (SWPTUF) (RG 15)

  1.  The South West Public Transport Users' Forum CIC (SWPTUF) exists to carry on activities which benefit the community and in particular to make representations in the interests of public transport users in the South West of England (comprising the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire and the unitary authorities of Bath and North East Somerset, Bournemouth, Bristol, North Somerset, Plymouth, Poole, South Gloucestershire, Swindon and Torbay). It was registered as a community interest company in August 2005. SWPTUF's origins are in an organisation of the same name, established in 2001, using powers granted to the Rail Passengers' Committee for Western England by the Railways Act 1993.

  2.  The original forum grew out of discussions between the Social & Economic Partners' Group of the South West Regional Assembly and the statutory Rail Passengers' Committee for Western England. The forum linked almost 100 not-for-profit organisations with an interest in promoting the interests of public transport users in the South West region. One of the purposes of this forum was to provide policy guidance to the member of the Regional Assembly's Social & Economic Partners' Group who was appointed to represent the views of public transport users. The RPC provided funding and administrative support for the original organisation. The forum was overseen by a steering group that included representatives from the RPC, the National Federation of Bus Users (now Bus Users UK), Transport 2000, the SW Transport Activists' Roundtable and Railfuture. Following enactment of the Railways Act 2005 and the consequent abolition of the Rail Passengers' Committee for Western England the Forum was re-established as a social enterprise. It now receives financial support from the South West Regional Assembly and local authorities in the region, as well as from public transport operators and equipment providers. SWPTUF is the sole representative body for public transport users throughout the South West region and its representative continues to sit as a Social, Economic & Environmental Partner in the South West Regional Assembly and as a member of the Advisory Group that advises the Board of the South West of England Regional Development Agency on infrastructure issues.

  3.  Sister organisations have developed in three other English regions. Each has its own characteristics and corporate form. Their commonality is a cross-modal approach to public transport issues and engagement in the work of their relevant regional institutions. These regionally-based organisations meet at a national level on a quarterly basis with a view to their further development, identifying common research activities (eg, trends in bus fare increases), exchanging information on issues of common interest that span regional boundaries (eg, rail franchise specification and tendering), delegating collective representation on national policy matters (eg, contributing to the work of the Transport Select Committee on train fares and ticketing) and in exchanging experiences of best practice (eg, research on multimodal ticketing).

  4.  From SWPTUF's perspective, the existence of the South West Regional Assembly and its willingness to receive representations from a wide range of stakeholders—some of them, like SWPTUF, giving access to otherwise hard-to-reach groups—has had some useful effects. First, it a regional partnership that has enabled representation of the views of public transport users to those charged with developing strategies and with providing public transport service. Secondly, it has brought about an improved consideration of the needs of public transport users and of the contribution that high quality public transport can make towards alleviating the problems, for both car users and those dependent on public transport, of access, economic regeneration and congestion in the context of spatial planning. Thirdly, the mechanism of the Regional Assembly enables local authority members to bring their experience to bear on matters from a more disinterested perspective than might be the case were they operating on a purely local canvass. When prioritising local schemes for inclusion in regional bids there appears to be growing recognition—possibly stimulated by the presence of social, economic and environmental partner stakeholders with a regional perspective—that the challenge is to identify what such schemes can do for the overall welfare of the region as well as their benefit to the authority member's locality. Fourthly—and this, to some extent, is another aspect of the previous point—the existence of a body at regional level that comprises both nominees from every local authority in the region, as well as properly accountable representatives of the region's social, economic and environmental stakeholder groups, has enabled the region to develop thinking on some realistic but challenging policy options. Evidence of the South West Regional Assembly's preparedness to take "tough" policy decisions is reflected in the transport policies it has developed as part of its emerging statutory Regional Spatial Strategy. The assembly argued that congestion and urban renewal should be tackled through a framework for new transport investment that combines a "step change" in public transport linked with stronger demand management measures in the region's strategically significant cities and towns. The relative insulation of local authority Assembly members from immediate electoral pressures, combined with the willingness of the Social, Economic and Environmental Partner members to draw on their own regional standing, enabled the Assembly to show leadership on "tough" policy issues; in more exposed electoral conditions, the temptation might have been to kick such decisions into touch. In other words, the Regional Assembly may act as a catalyst for action on necessary but difficult issues: measures for which local authorities might not wish to take responsibility, however sympathetic to the need for intervention, can be attributed to the Regional Assembly.

  5.  It was against this background that SWPTUF developed its own contribution to the preparation of the Regional Spatial Strategy for the period to 2026. This took the form of a draft Regional Public Transport Strategy which was developed over the two years from 2003-05. The process involved public consultations and workshops with stakeholders throughout the region. SWPTUF was able to put forward a draft Regional Public Transport Strategy which won the unanimous, enthusiastic support of the Regional Assembly's Social, Economic & Environmental Partners. It addressed the problems of urban congestion, social exclusion and economic regeneration by carefully developing solutions around the linked concepts of high quality public transport provision and the introduction of appropriate demand management measures. This approach has been echoed subsequently in the South West's draft Regional Spatial Strategy and in the region's advice to the Government on the Regional Funding Allocation over the period to 2016 of the next three Comprehensive Spending Reviews. This would have been difficult to achieve in the absence of a regional assembly: the temptation would have been to seek alliances and trade-offs between local authorities in pursuit of long-cherished local aspirations rather than to address the need for regional prioritisation on the basis of the consistency with national and regional policies, a proper evidence base, stakeholder buy-in and deliverability required by the Government.


  (a)  As indicated above, SWPTUF welcomes the increased accountability reflected in the development of the South West Regional Assembly and the mutually agreed arrangements for the Assembly's scrutiny and strategic reviews of the South West Regional Development Agency's key policies (thus enabling the Assembly to discharge its duties as the designated regional chamber under the Regional Development Agencies Act, 1998). We believe that these have contributed to regional coherence and the preparation of strategies will help the region address future challenges in ways that are likely to gain wider endorsement than would otherwise have been the case. That is not to say that all is perfect.

  (b)  The fact that members of the Regional Assembly are sheltered from public election clearly limits its potential and credibility. It provides potent fuel for those who regard regional assemblies as an unnecessary and undemocratic bureaucratic imposition. There is even a sense that terms like "Assembly" or "Regional Chamber" are a reflection of deceit, for the body is clearly not a regional legislature. At its best, and in the absence of direct elections, the current institution is a vehicle for the promotion of Regional Partnership working—bringing together each of the local authorities whilst maintaining a political balance that reflects the share of vote taken by each of the significant political groups in the region and the key regional stakeholders, representing social, economic and environmental interests. The participation of these stakeholders (who are required to be able to demonstrate a mechanism for effective representation and feedback to the bodies and networks to whom they are accountable, all of which must be able to represent the region as a whole) does something to provide a nexus with the people of the region in the absence of direct election of the local authority representatives.

  (c)  As a social enterprise that seeks to benefit the wider community, particularly the interests of public transport users, SWPTUF is well aware that important elements of regionally-relevant decision-making presently lie outside the direct influence of the Regional Assembly. The Government Office for the South West, which represents central government in the region, has executive and strategic responsibilities that impact on the lives of those living in the region. Some of these responsibilities, such as those for public health, education and community safety, may have a determining impact on the delivery of such as the Regional Spatial Strategy (for which the Regional Assembly is responsible) yet these responsibilities are discharged without any accountability to the Regional Assembly. This is a barrier to "joined-up" thinking and a potentially weak link in the chain of accountability.

  (d)  A number of public sector bodies—such as the Highways Agency and, until its abolition, the Strategic Rail Authority in the transport field—suffer from a inadequate connection with the Regional Assembly. This can give rise to conflicting strategies. This became increasingly evident in the work of the Strategic Rail Authority with, for example, its Route Utilisation Strategy for the Great Western Main Line and with its subsequent Invitation to Tender document that it issued in connection with the new Greater Western Franchise during the course of 2005. In both cases, the Authority proved itself unwilling to take account of the emerging evidence-based conclusions around the "refresh" of the Regional Economic Strategy and the Regional Spatial Strategy. This work showed that the South West Region is likely to experience a continuing high level of population growth over the next twenty years, particularly amongst the older demographic groups. This latter point has particular implications for public transport provision as did the emerging Regional Spatial Strategy with its emphasis on the role that public transport would in future play in helping the region to address urban congestion and regeneration and inter-regional connectivity issues. The SRA, and its successors at the DfT, appeared unwilling to acknowledge the relevance and authority of the region's planning work and persisted in its assumptions of low growth. Interestingly, FirstGroup is reported to have based its successful franchise bid on the basis of projections that are more closely aligned with those of the region. The point remains, however, that the opportunity to draw on or, indeed, influence the views of some key public sector organisations is weakened by the apparently arbitrary way in which they contribute to and draw on the benefits of Regional Partnership working. This does not facilitate coordinated and informed planning.

  (e)  This situation may arise because of a perception that, due to financial constraints, the staffing of the Regional Assembly is under resourced. The Assembly certainly and properly makes extensive use of the expertise of third parties, whether local authorities, Government Office South West, the Regional Development Agency or consultants. But in the absence of sufficient in-house expertise and with the existence of a number of public bodies whose strategies help determine life in the region, but who remain determinedly unaccountable to it, it is inevitable that attention is diverted away from the Assembly to those third parties.

  (f)  We are mindful that a number of key areas for public sector decision making and intervention in the region are vested nationally. We welcomed the government's initial moves to engage regional stakeholders in determining the financial priorities for their region in relation to Devolving Decision-Making. We note the outstanding aspiration of the ODPM, Treasury and DfT that funding for rail services in the regions might receive similar treatment and look with admiration and some envy at the achievements in the public transport sector of the devolved administrations. The power to shape strategies should be matched by the power to advise on the disposition of funds—particularly in those areas that are crucial to realising those strategies for which the region has already been given responsibility.


  (a)  The South West region has the largest land area of any of the nine English regions yet it has the lowest population density. The population is predominantly rural while its principal settlements have established clear identities, which they tend to guard with fierce independence of one another. To some extent their distinctiveness from other parts of England is a unifying factor, as is the sense that the South West is outside the mainstream of national concern, other than in the August holiday season or as people contemplate retirement.

  (b)  It is notable that the working of the Regional Assembly is characterised increasingly by a constructive collegiality and the three main political parties within the Assembly all now seem committed to consensual working in the region's interest. That is not to deny any tensions within the wider region. The UK Independence Party is inclined to portray the South West Regional Assembly as a vassal institution of the European Commission while the geographic peripherality and economic and social disparities of Cornwall (reflected in its EU Objective One status) reinforce Cornish sensibilities of Cornwall's "difference".

  (c)  From a public transport perspective the region is remarkably self-contained, with the exception of that part around Bournemouth, Christchurch, Poole and south Dorset. In large part it is the English spatial legacy of the Great Western Railway and the old sub-regional bus companies like Bristol Omnibus, Western National and Devon General. There can be no doubt that the activities of the Regional assembly have realised the opportunity to bring greater coherence to transport planning without under-estimating the continuing need for strong sub-regional management if the needs of the urban conurbations and their rural hinterland are to be accommodated successfully. The activities of the Joint Strategic Planning & Transportation Unit, which serves the four unitary authorities that formerly comprised the County of Avon (Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire), is an example of sub-regional collaboration in the region. Its shortcomings are also a reminder of the difficulties that a major urban conurbation and its travel-to-work area encounter when they are denied the benefits of a Passenger Transport Executive, especially where there may be underlying tensions between constituent parts. Sub-regionalism has its limitations too.


  (a)  A useful distinction can be made in the transport field between the strategic work that is done at the regional level and the execution that is carried out through Local Transport Plans (LTPs). At the strategic level a coherent regional Transport Strategy has only begun to emerge in the context of the current work on the draft Regional Spatial Strategy. In future it is important that Local Transport Plans should reflect this over-arching strategic work. We are still in an era where traditional local authority boundaries have an undue impact on the provision of services or concessions, particularly in matters related to public service provision of bus services or in relation to concessionary fares' schemes. The Regional Assembly needs to develop mechanisms to ensure the strategic compliance of LTPs with its Regional Transport Strategy and, by examining carefully those areas where there may be conflict, identifying the short-comings in its own thinking.

  (b)  The effectiveness of the region is constrained by its geographic extent—Tewkesbury in the north of the region is nearer to Scotland than it is to Penzance—and by the arbitrary nature of some of its boundaries. The population of the Christchurch-Bournemouth-Poole conurbation almost certainly feels greater affinity with Southampton than it does with Bristol or Swindon or Plymouth. This is scarcely surprising: not only do the principal transport corridors favour these links but Christchurch and Bournemouth were part of Hampshire until 1974. Likewise, towns such as Ashchurch and Tewkesbury in the northern fringe of the region are almost certainly influenced by their closer proximity to Birmingham than to Bristol. It is possible that people's perceptions of what forms a region that is recognisable and appropriate to them are more influenced by the vagaries of the broadcast transmission network and the territory of regional television news than by any other single thing. Geographically, the South West region is still little more than a planner's expression although it is true to say that opinion surveys show that principal themes of concern in the region—poor public transport, lack of affordable housing, low wages and the need to protect a unique environment—are common throughout.

  (c)  We have referred above, and will refer again immediately below, to the lack of co-ordination with regional strategies that has characterised the activities of some public sector agencies. It is worth noting the success that has been achieved in the way that the Regional Assembly has successfully pioneered an over-arching Integrated Regional Strategy, providing a clear framework for integration of the many regional strategies that have since been developed by a range of organisations. The Integrated Regional Strategy has not only secured endorsement from these organisations; the very processes of engaging people from across the region in developing and consulting on it was formative. A repeated theme in regional debate is the desire for strong regional leadership. The Integrated Regional Strategy showed that the Regional Assembly has the potential to respond to this need.


  (a)  Inter-regional cooperation is vital to effective public transport. The ability to discuss issues authoritatively and collaboratively, region to region, is one of the great benefits deriving from the structure of Regional Assemblies. In the South West this has been evidenced by the joint work carried out with, for example, the South East of England Regional Assembly on matters around the future capacity shortfall of the Great Western Main Line, particularly in delivering access through Reading and on to London.

  (b)  It is a fact of the geography of the South West that some of the most pressing transport bottle-necks and development issues restraining the region's performance and inhibiting its potential lie beyond its bounds. The complex and congested layout of lines and junctions around Reading, for example, does much to determine the extent and quality of services throughout the South West. Access to London Heathrow—the major airport for the majority of air travellers to and from the region, despite the recent success of Bristol—is another example. The south east of the region has a degree of dependence on links with Southampton and onward through that conurbation while there is significant traffic across the Severn to and from the Bristol conurbation each day. All these issues require inter-regional cooperation and access to high quality staff resource guided by informed and well-developed regional strategies.


  The experience of SWPTUF is that the South West Regional Assembly has created the circumstances in which it has been possible to develop an effective voice for the interests of public transport users and to lay the foundations of a forward-looking, progressive and inclusive regional transport strategy. This role would be further enhanced and accountability improved by the devolution to the region of responsibility to advise on the strategies for, and monitor the delivery of, the activities of other regionally significant authorities.

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