Devolution seeds will bear fruit

Headbolt Lane
Jason Prince

I am not sure about you, but this year feels like it is flying by. The start of the new year only feels like yesterday and we are already in the countdown to the big Easter getaway. Given that Easter is early this year, I suppose we can’t expect balmy Spring days – although our climate does seem to be on the change (I will save that for a future column). But what we can expect this year is a lot of election campaigning leading into the mayoral elections across England.

Each devolved city region that covers the Urban Transport Group’s full membership has elections, whether that be incumbent mayors or mayors for the new combined authorities. Now, I may hear some ask ‘why do these elections matter?’. They matter because when we are talking about all things transport, our mayors and the city regions are being granted greater control over funding and powers across their respective areas – and that has the potential to dramatically change the shape of public transport for the better.

Many of you will (hopefully) have read our latest publication, Inside Track – The state of transport 2024. In it, as well as providing a snapshot in time of the state of public transport in 2024 compared to 2014, we also provide an overview of the ‘devolution journey’ for transport across England. What is startling is how devolution is now the norm for our city regions, not the exception.

There are now over 22 million people living in devolved areas in England. In the city regions of our full members, each has a directly elected mayor with more and more transport and funding powers at their disposal. For example, in the first devolution deal – the Greater Manchester Agreement in 2014 – transport powers included a devolved and consolidated transport budget and the opportunity to take on bus franchising powers (consulted on and granted in the Bus Services Act 2017). Ten years after that agreement, we now see the yellow franchised buses in parts of Greater Manchester, forming the cornerstone of the new Bee Network, with the whole of the city region scheduled to be under a franchised bus scheme from next year. Hot on the heels of Greater Manchester is the Liverpool City Region, which has also decided to move towards a franchised bus system, with other areas considering their next steps on bus reform.

And it is not just on buses that we are seeing a change. Since the evolution of the first devolution deal, we are now in new and exciting territory. The most significant developments have taken place in Greater Manchester and West Midlands through Trailblazer deals. These deals, agreed in 2023, have focused on simplifying funding arrangements, providing greater local flexibility, and granting powers that would support the creation of integrated cross-modal transport networks. And from the next Spending Review period these areas will receive a longer-term, streamlined, department-style funding settlement for their area.

And more recently, building on ‘Level 3’ deals that included access to a consolidated longer term local transport funding through the City Regions Sustainable Transport Fund (CRSTS) as well as access to franchising, we have ‘Level 4’ deals. These will offer access to further levers on local transport as well as the promise of a single pot transport settlement. The first areas to move to Level 4, announced by the secretary of state for levelling up, Michael Gove, at the excellent Convention of the North in Leeds recently were West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Liverpool City Region.

As exciting as this all sounds however, will it make a difference? Personally, I believe it will.

Firstly, our city regions see transport not just as a means to an end, but as an investment in place-making, an essential ingredient in helping connect communities at a local level. It is thanks to the devolved powers and funds that they can bring this place-led vision to life. In the West Midlands, central to the Combined Authority’s plan is the connection of different towns and cities in the Black Country to support the broader West Midlands economy. And there can be no better demonstration of this than the ongoing work at the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation in Dudley, where high end manufacturing skills that were a legacy of car manufacturing in the West Midlands are now being applied to develop Very Light Rail. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the site to see the development on the ground – and I was blown away not just by the technology but by the pride that this new innovative mode of transport is being made in the West Midlands.

And in Greater Manchester, my home town, we will soon see the opening of a new transport interchange in Stockport. But this is no ordinary interchange – it is the centrepiece of the Stockport Mayoral Development Corporation, a new partnership that sets out a fresh approach for town centre regeneration. Alongside the new interchange – which will have capacity for 164 bus departures an hour (impressive!), is a new active travel route to Stockport railway station, a new town centre park and a landmark residential development made up of 196 high-quality one and two-bedroom apartments.

Secondly, I believe devolution is bringing with it a new accountability and approach to service standards for local people. For example, in the Liverpool City Region, local leaders were clear that the new Merseyrail trains would be designed with the input of local people, so that they have a stake in their own transport network. And this has been the same for the development of the new Headbolt Lane station in Kirkby. A step-free station with new passenger facilities as well as a bus interchange, and new active travel routes close to new housing developments. In Greater Manchester, early indications are that service reliability on Bee Network buses is above what it was prior to franchising, along with increased patronage.

Finally, I believe devolution will bring ambition and new thinking for local areas, reflecting the needs of the local economy and their communities. In London, we are seeing the introduction of Superloop, a network of 10 express bus routes between key outer London town centres and transport hubs. And in the North East, alongside brand-new Tyne and Wear Metro trains and a huge investment in a £70m depot at Gosforth for the new trains, there is the ambition to open the Leamside Line, a disused 21-mile railway line which runs from Gateshead to County Durham, connecting with the East Coast Main Line (ECML). Further down the ECML in West Yorkshire, there is the ambition of a mass transit system for the region, while in South Yorkshire, the combined authority will be bringing the tram back under public control this very month.

It is against the precarious backdrop of public transport in 2024, with public transport usage still lower than before the pandemic, a lack of certainty over long term funding, especially for buses, a new deal for the railways now kicked back until after a general election, and an overall lack of a strategy of how public transport can support UK plc, that there are seeds of optimism that can lock in the recovery that is taking place. And those seeds are being planted across the city regions by local leaders and their mayors. The most urgent of those to take root, is the need for long term, sustainable funding for transport (another column topic in the near future).

I am hopeful that as we move forward over the coming years, we will see these seeds bear fruit, with significant progress across all metrics of public transport, something that the Urban Transport Group will look forward to capturing in future editions of Inside Track.

Jason Prince is Director at the Urban Transport Group

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Inside track - The state of transport 2024

This report aims to give readers the ‘inside track’ into transport trends over the last decade – to not only show what they are, but to also explain why they are happening and what they might mean for cities and transport within them.
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