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blog: What does the latest Budget mean for transport planners?

Author: Jon Parker

After weeks of hints and soft-pedalled ideas the last budget before Brexit has been revealed, with a claimed focus on a ‘beginning of the end to austerity’.  The positive headlines might lead some to think we are heading back to the halcyon days of the 2000’s - when local authorities found themselves flush with revenue to spend on local sustainable transport and travel behaviour change programmes.

Key take-aways

But before you start enlarging your team of travel behaviour change specialists, it is wise to take a closer look at the devil in the detail of proposed transport investments.  Here are five key things we spotted on skimming through the published 2018 Autumn Budget:

  • Much of the announced funding is ring-fenced for already committed major highway investment schemes, under the next Road Investment Strategy period (2020-25).  The link to vehicle tax revenues is interesting, given the wider uptake of Ultra Low Emission Vehicles is likely to alter the balance of tax revenues traditionally collected from vehicle and fuel duties and require the Government to consider alternative approaches to funding public spending in future.
  • Although the amount announced for repairing roads appears healthy at £420m, it equates to only 3.5% of the £12bn the RAC estimates is needed to address a backlog of road repairs.  This does seem to sit at odds with the commitment, identified above, to invest £30bn in new strategic roads - why build more when we can’t maintain the ones we have?
  • Specific recognition is given to both Northern Powerhouse and Cambridge to Bedford rail schemes, continuing the investment to date in non-car based ways of supporting strategic growth.  Accelerating the delivery of such schemes is important if we are to improve inter-urban links and reduce widespread reliance on private car travel for a number of key commuter, business and leisure journeys
  • The National Living Wage will rise by 4.9%, from £7.83 to £8.21 an hour.  This is good news for all ethically-minded employers and their staff.  However with increasing volumes of national and sub-regional transport modelling work now outsourced globally, it will be interesting to see what impact this has on how such work is procured and delivered going forward.
  • The budget puts a nail in the coffin of PFI – a much used tool in the armoury of major transport scheme investments, but one that has increasingly looked like a bad deal when lifetime costs are examined more carefully.  While this will save money in the long-run, it does mean Government is either going to have to dip more heavily into public funds, or rely on the private sector to fund and deliver infrastructure in other ways.

Travel Demand – to accommodate or manage?

Perhaps intriguingly, there is no mention of the role demand management measures could play to fund transport improvement programmes.  For example, whilst legislation has been introduced to enable any city to introduce a Workplace Parking Levy for some years, only in Nottingham has such a scheme been implemented.  Anyone that sees first-hand the success of Nottingham as an integrated transport city would be hard-pushed not to conclude that similar demand management schemes (funding alternatives like mass rapid transit and strategic cycle routes) should be introduced in all major cities with limited road space to help manage urban growth and land-use intensification.

However, there are some really positive items in the budget that can make a positive contribution towards addressing some of the most challenging urban transport issues – not least the announcement that more cash is available for the Transforming Cities Fund (now £2.4bn) to help a group of core cities outside of Combined Authority areas to deliver improvements focused on improving the quality of walking, cycling and public transport options.  Similarly, the funds set aside for housing infrastructure, land assembly, and strategic growth deals offer a promise of more thoughtfully integrated land use and transport planning.

Transformative funding also needs transformative thinking

So, ignoring that on the one hand we are building more major roads, which empirical evidence has long-since demonstrated will induce more traffic, and on the other we are working to reduce congestion and improve air quality in cities (destinations for many car trips), much can be achieved by properly investing in sustainable urban transport strategies that put people first. 

From the perspective of cities that ITP is working with, we detect genuine optimism and enthusiasm that the Transforming Cities fund, in particular, can have a positive impact... provided:  

  • Funds are properly invested in well-evidenced, truly sustainable initiatives.
  • There is long-term political support for sustainable mobility across party lines.
  • Bold decisions are taken in the manner of the most progressive world cities.

Put simply - if we want to create clean, healthy and prosperous places we have to look at solutions beyond the private car.  ITP’s team is eager to make sure we do all we can to help build the case for sustainable transport investments, such that UK’s cities and planned new Garden Communities grow in a way that gives local people real choice in making more sustainable travel choices.

A healthy future?

We'll conclude by observing that the Autumn 2018 Budget makes very clear commitments to health and the NHS, in particular.  Despite this the bulk of transport spending remains focused on highway schemes that will deepen car dependency and worsen community severance, social inequalities and environmental externalities – all of which are known to contribute to worsening physical and mental health.  

Maybe in a post-Brexit Budget we’ll see the 'active travel wonder drug' identified by the Chief Medical Officer back in 2009 be properly funded, and introduced as part of a cohesive and joined-up preventative health and transport solution to the problems faced in both sectors?

Jon Parker and Neil Taylor


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