Tony Travers: More devolved transport powers and resources would help the country to recover and ‘level up’

Tony Travers: More devolved transport powers and resources would help the country to recover and ‘level up’

Public transport has few enemies, at least until Covid-19 came along. The last 18 months have proved brutal for train, Underground, tram and bus operators, with fare income collapsing as most people were locked down in their own homes. As the country moves tentatively towards economic recovery, it is possible to see what policies will be required to improve productivity and life chances, not only in London but throughout the United Kingdom.

Policy about devolution to city regions has been consensual in the years since Mayors and combined authorities began to evolve from the early 2000s onwards and Labour, Conservative-Liberal Democrat and Conservative governments alike. The current government has signalled its intention to go further and bring counties within the ambit of devolution.

As “levelling up” has become a political priority, particularly since the 2019 general election, it has become entwined with devolution. Mayors, including Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Andy Street, have argued that without further devolution of powers and resources it will be impossible to increase prosperity in city regions in the Midlands and the North of England.

Mayors already have significant powers over their transport systems, but they need more if substantive levelling up is to be achieved. London and the South East have a long-developed network of railways, one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the world. London’s ticketing system is also a triumph compared to those in many cities overseas. History has not left other major British cities with as good a legacy.

In the short-to-medium term, urban transport systems will need additional resources to replace the passenger revenues lost to Covid. If commuting takes several years to recover, fare revenue will have to be augmented by grants or local taxation. Most cities in Britain will also need investment in their underlying transport infrastructure if they are to be able to match the offer of high-productivity competitors in Europe, North America and beyond. Devolved powers over such investment would ensure local needs were met in ways that underpin the economy.

A new report entitled City Region Connectivity, commissioned by the London Property Alliance and the Sheffield Property Association, explores the importance of “within city region” transport to boost productivity, inward investment and image. Successful contemporary cities, a number of which are featured as case studies in the report, have train and tram-based transport networks that are the envy of most in the UK. To achieve the scale of change required, metro mayors will require access to powers currently held by Whitehall that will allow them to raise resources, develop schemes and capture benefits.

There is a risk that a single, national, plan for transport investment will prioritise mega-schemes at the expense of those needed to get people from home to work and back every day. Politicians and officials in, for example, Sheffield and South Yorkshire know what their people and businesses need.

With the best will in the world, Whitehall cannot do this: officials and ministers find themselves having to trade off costs and benefits in cities from Sheffield to Bristol to Newcastle. Central government has an important role in relation to the oversight and funding of the national rail and road systems, but it should leave city regional transport investment decisions to those on the ground.

City Region Connectivity shows how all cities could enjoy investments which would allow them to grow together. The more decisions about transport projects, investments and operation are made sub-nationally, the more likely they are to avoid problematic grands projets in favour of those that Mayors and combined authority leaders really want. The public can have a voice in urban transport and development in a way that is impossible at the national level.

As the economy recovers from the pandemic, investment in Britain’s cities – including London – is a way to secure higher growth, better jobs and more balanced growth. The report shows how such benefits can be achieved.

Tony Travers is Visiting Professor of Government at the London School of Economics and Director of LSE London. This article is a slightly adapted version of his Conclusion to the City Region Connectivity report. Read the report here.

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