Saturday, December 13, 2008

Manchester spat over TIF

I'm not sure anyone will have been surprised by the result of the Manchester referendum on congestion charging, announced yesterday - except perhaps the Yes campaigners.

The result was a thumping 79% No across the 10 local authorities which make up Greater Manchester. The turnout was a very respectable 53%.

I have decidely mixed feelings about congestion charging. When Darlington first became a unitary authority back in 1997, and I was elected Chair of the new Highways and Transport Committee, I attended several seminars on transport policy around the country. These were aimed at professionals rather than members, and I learned an enormous amount from them.

One session which always stuck in my mind was research from Bristol which looked at what measures would actually persuade drivers to leave their cars and move to public transport. It also considered how the inexorable drift to car travel could be staunched.

It examined all the then known techniques - such as higher car parking charges, reduced car parking spaces, greater availability of public transport and the like. All of these approaches (and this was theoretical research following in-depth surveys rather than based on practical evidence) showed that whilst these measures could slow down the increase in the number of journeys made by car, none would reverse it. Only one step would do this - congestion charging. And this would have to be congestion charging across the city, and not just forming a cordon around the city centre.

Since then, of course, one city - London- has successfully implemented a congestion charge (I get grumpy and throw things at the TV when Durham's single toll road is described as congestion charging). To try and encourage the rest of the country, the Government has waved significant amounts of cash as highways authorities in the form of money to improve public transport, called TIF (Transport Innovation Fund).

And now this has been decisively rejected for the second time - Edinburgh had a similar poll in 2005, where the majority against was only slightly lower. The Manchester proposal had built into it significant improvements in public transport (the perceived poor quality of which drivers often say dissuades them from taking the bus) and still the vote was a big "No". So, what can we learn?

Firstly, I despair of any town, city or indeed conurbation voting yes. Take Darlington - I went on record repeatedly when Cabinet Member for Highways as saying that congestion charging would be wrong for Darlington. Even if Darlington were part of a wider bid with authorities in the Tees Valley, it would place us at a significant economic disadvantage compared to Durham City, Sunderland, Newcastle and York. Without a level playing field across the whole region, I cannot see how it would not hurt the Borough's economy.

Even then, however, I'm not sure that a Yes vote could be achieved. London's congestion charge was introduced after all on the back of Ken Livingstone's Mayoral victory, and not a city-wide poll. So, at the risk of being howled down for a lack of democratic principles, I believe that having referenda in advance of congestion charging has to be abandoned. Residents should be given the chance to see what effect road tolling has, for 6-12 months say, and then vote on the continuation of the scheme. At the moment, the fear of the unknown is killing any chance of progress.

Even then, I couldn't see a scheme simply for Darlington or the Tees Valley going ahead. It will require road pricing across the country. That of course will require huge investment in public transport across England when the Government's finances are already, ahem, hard-pressed.

Of course, since then Darlington has been at the forefront of a new approach - investing in public transport infrastructure whilst at the same time working intensively with residents to explain the transport choices they have. At a time of economic growth, it led to significant decrease in the number of car journeys, whilst walking and cycling in particular boomed.

So as we enter an economic downturn, with reduced traffic on our roads, and after this referendum result, don't expect to hear too much about road tolling as a national priority. The problems of congestion, especially in the big cities and on the major arterial motorways won't go away, however, but that may be for the next generation of transport planners and politicians to sort out.

14 comments:

miketually said...

I'd agree that it would be very difficult for any town to unilaterally bring in congestion charging or road pricing.

I wonder, however, if there is a half way house? For example, could a sliding scale of car parking charges be introduced, such that anyone whose stay in the car park started or ended during peak times would either have a congestion surcharge added to their ticket price, or be charged a slightly higher hourly rate?

I think more needs to be done to equalise the time/cost penalty incurred when choosing to use public transport over taking the car.

Chris Hutt said...

A very neat summary of the situation, nicely written.

There's clearly a need for a rethink on whether congestion can be managed more sensibly than just letting it fester as a self-regulating mechanism.

Did not the short term rise in fuel prices over the summer indicate a sensitivity to that particular pricing mechanism?

Anonymous said...

Road pricing is more stick than carrot - and it's a flat tax which hits those on middle and lower incomes.

Real public transport is what we need. That means municipal ownership and democratic control.

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks for your comments.

Mike - car parking charges are one way of addressing the choices people make over which form of transport to use, but it's not a perfect tool. Remember that whilst Darlington BC owns most of the surface, and one multi-storey car park, in larger towns and cities, car parks tend to be under the control of private operators, who may not share the local authority's good intentions.

They will set their charges according to their own business models, and the council will only have some say over them via initial planning permission.

The Government has allowed councils to set levies for workplace parking spaces, however, which may be a more fertile avenue for some authorities to explore - I think Nottingham were looking at introducing such a scheme, if they haven't already.

You still hit the problem of neighbouring towns and cities' policies of course. Only a sub-regional approach can address this, unless you're a very big city (like Nottingham) where it doesn't matter so much what other conurbations are up to.

Chris - thanks for stopping by. I see from your blog that you played a part in the transformation of Bristol's transport policies in the 80's and 90' - as an exiled Bristolian who despaired of various city planning and transport policies, I salute you!

I've been meaning for some time to include Bristol-related sites on my blogroll, which will mean nothing to colleagues up here, but will keep me up to speed with what's going on in Bristol - your visit has finally kicked me into action.

And you're right, of course - petrol pricing is one (rather blunt) tool as far as traffic restraint is concerned. As anonymous says, however, it can't protect those on lower incomes, and people in rural areas, where congestion isn't a pressing problem but social exclusion can be, tend to feel that higher petrol prices impact on them more severely and unfairly too.

Whilst congestion problems are likely to ease during a downturn, global warming as an issue certainly won't, so the issue is likely to remain live. I simply don't detect any appetite amongst national politicians to grasp the nettle and take a potentially very difficult set of decisions on road pricing.

ian said...

Nick,
I agree with much of what you say and this time of year brings certain aspects into sharp relief.

As a Hurworth resident I will give an example of my recent experience.

With the masses of shoppers on the town on saturday, it seemed an obvious idea for my family and i to avoid the parking problems and get the bus. There is currently a reasonably reliable service from Hurworth so even the cold is not too much of a deterrent. However, for a family of 5 to get to town and back, approx 3 miles, would cost in the region of £14. Far too much an hour or twos shopping.
In addition, we are faced with waiting for a bus directly outside the Nags Head Public House. Given the state of many of their clients I will not allow my teenage children to come home from that stop, especially later in the afternoon or evening.

And could someone please explain why children are expected to pay full fare at 14?

Darlington needs a proper modern, clean bus station, where familes can wait in safety in safety and comfort for an efficient and economical bus service.

Therfore before drivers are hit once again with yet more tax, bus travel must be made more attractive, in terms of both cost and comfort

ian said...

Nick,
I agree with much of what you say and this time of year brings certain aspects into sharp relief.

As a Hurworth resident I will give an example of my recent experience.

With the masses of shoppers on the town on saturday, it seemed an obvious idea for my family and i to avoid the parking problems and get the bus. There is currently a reasonably reliable service from Hurworth so even the cold is not too much of a deterrent. However, for a family of 5 to get to town and back, approx 3 miles, would cost in the region of £14. Far too much an hour or twos shopping.
In addition, we are faced with waiting for a bus directly outside the Nags Head Public House. Given the state of many of their clients I will not allow my teenage children to come home from that stop, especially later in the afternoon or evening.

And could someone please explain why children are expected to pay full fare at 14?

Darlington needs a proper modern, clean bus station, where familes can wait in safety in safety and comfort for an efficient and economical bus service.

Therfore before drivers are hit once again with yet more tax, bus travel must be made more attractive, in terms of both cost and comfort

Anonymous said...

Darlington council don't run the buses - that arriva!!!
Don't live in the sticks if travel's suc a nightmare, lol!

ian said...

helpful comment and typically anonymous..........

the whole point of this thread is an attempt to discuss congestion issues. My point is that many are "forced" to use their private car to get into town due to the cost/discomfort of bus travel.

Of course Arriva run the busses, but a number of routes are subsidised by council tax payers.

Travel for me is not such a nightmare but for those with out the use of a car, accessing key services now being centralised in the towns is increasingly problematic.

ian said...

helpful comment and typically anonymous..........

the whole point of this thread is an attempt to discuss congestion issues. My point is that many are "forced" to use their private car to get into town due to the cost/discomfort of bus travel.

Of course Arriva run the busses, but a number of routes are subsidised by council tax payers.

Travel for me is not such a nightmare but for those with out the use of a car, accessing key services now being centralised in the towns is increasingly problematic.

ian said...

so good it had to be said twice.....

Anonymous said...

Arriva run the busses *for profit*, and that's the problem. Instead of retaining a financial surplus to subsidise unprofitable routes, thereby providing a universal service - Arriva takes public subsidy and hands profits to shareholders. In other words, taxes are funding private profit. Like the railways, buses get more public subsidies now they're private!

The privatisation of public transport was done in the name of competition, ending monopoly control - but we in Darlington know that the corporate takeover of the buses was a ruthless process and that now there is no competition. Typically, New Labour failed to reverse this disastrous Tory policy.

So let's face it, transport is a natural monopoly - the buses should be taken under municipal ownership.

I know there's not much local government can do in terms of asserting public control - reregulation is nowhere near as effective as municipal ownership - but there's nothing stopping Darlington council uniting with other local authorities to request a change of policy from central government.

Chris Hutt said...

DC, thanks for your reply. I think 'transformation' overstates what was achieved here in Bristol in the latter half of Avon CC's reign, but considering how resolutely pro-road building (and indifferent to 'alternatives') the council were at the time I suppose we made some progress.

As you probably appreciate change takes time to bed-in and trying to force the pace can be counter productive (the lesson from Manchester possibly?). The changes that I and others were advocating in the 80s are only now being taken seriously.

I had no idea that you were ex-Bristol. I just came across your excellent blog by chance from Googling 'Manchester congestion charge'. I must say that Darlington's gain appears to be a sad loss for Bristol.

We could use some straight talking politicians down here, although to be honest Mark Bradshaw (your counterpart in Bristol) is actually very able (but don't tell him I said so). He's currently caught in the middle of a lot of crossfire, having to front all sorts of unpopular policies and getting a hard time from bloggers like me.

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks, everyone.

Chris - I have to confess that when Darlington was striving for unitary status in the mid 90's, I publicly used my experience of Avon (and Humberside, where my wife is from) as an example of the kind of 'big' semi-regional government from which Darlington needed to escape.

Whilst the Borough has thrived since we left Durham County's clutches, however, undoubtedly Bristol benefitted from its time as part of Avon.

Your comment prompted me to revisit my (ahem) 1st edition of "The Fight for Bristol" by Priest & Cobb - without Avon, Bristol's historic streetscape would now be even poorer. Breaking the city's obsession with the motor car, which enslaved planners from the 30's onwards, began when Bristol was assimilated into Avon.

I intend to post occasionally on Bristol-related blogsites, though whether my ancient obsessions will be welcome I rather doubt. The future of the old Norwich Union buildings on Wine Street/High Street - surely an opportunity to erect a facsimile of the Dutch House for some far-sighted developer? And where's the statue of Bevin on the Docks??

Anyway...

As for the Ian vs. anonymous vs. anonymous exchange...

Yes, to some extent we should accept responsibility for where we live. I shout at the TV when some arsey character comes on to complain that they've just moved to a village in Suffolk, but can't get easy access to London. Councils have been devising policies for some time now that try and join up employment and housing, but the ethic of personal travel choice tends to trump all.

Certainly, however, residents in Hurworth should be able to get in and out of Darlington easily by bus. I know that we have been working with Arriva on this, and there are cheap ticketing options available, but they don't tend to accommodate "one off" family journeys into town like the one you describe.

I share anonymous 2#'s analysis of the 1985 Tranpsort Act (and deregulation in 1986) although to be fair to the Government, it has tried to make the best of a bad legacy.

Most recently, Geoff Hoon has said that the Transport Bill currently going through Parliament will "empower local authorities to secure the services that people want." That could mean the London-style franchising which has often been advocated as a way of ending the nonsense of deregulation, and re-establish cross-subsidisation between profit-making and loss-making routes. We shall see...

There is no prospect, however, of a bus station being built in Darlington. Arriva have made it very clear that they won't use the old Feethams site as a bus station, which begs the question as to where a station should be situated, and how its construction could be paid for?

Answers on a postcard...

Sohaib Ahmed said...

A very neat summary of the situation, nicely written.
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