Some excellent public transport schemes, more widespread investment in walking & cycling, but still a dominance of road schemes and a lack of transparency – that’s the headline verdict on the 2015-2016 transport proposals from England’s LEPs.
Campaign for Better Transport has been monitoring the local transport spending of England’s LEPs (Local Economic Partnerships) through our LEP Watch project. Last year we used Freedom of Information requests to source LEPs’ transport wishlists, in the form of the bids and proposals made for projects in the coming year, and the funding LEPs would allocate to support them, and we've analysed the results.
The aim of LEPs is to boost the economy, creating jobs, linking people to employment and trading opportunities, and connecting up sites for new homes. Most LEP funding comes in turn from central Government grants through Growth Deals and other initiatives (with additional support for some schemes from commercial developers, transport operators, or local authority capital budgets) which means this is public money.
Yet the process for prioritising and allocating spend is opaque and often driven by business needs rather than community priorities, with much of the decision-making unaccountable to local people as recently highlighted by the National Audit Office. Our LEP Watch project aims to shed light on LEPs' transport plans.
We’ve been critical that LEP transport funding has been targeted too much at new road capacity and not enough at public transport, walking and cycling. While some LEPs are backing exemplary projects, too many are continuing to promote new roads, often linked to out-of-town developments.
Many new road schemes are at best unnecessary and at worst are damaging in environmental and social terms. The laudable goals of delivering more homes and jobs could be better served by more sustainable transport options.
So how did the LEP bids for 2015-2016 shape up?
New roads and road-led programmes still have the lion’s share of proposed spend, with just over half proposed spending on new road capacity and two thirds of all bids on road-based schemes.
As the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road has shown, new roads not only destroy landscapes but deliver poor value for money in practice, with the local authority left facing the bill if LEP funding is insufficient.
Road maintenance remains the poor relation within the road projects, although some local authorities have since received a separate allocation through the Pothole Action Fund.
The good news is that all LEPs bar two had some kind of sustainable transport provision in their plans, a great improvement on earlier years.
Public transport, including new or upgraded tram, rail and bus routes as well as station improvements, attracted 23% of proposed spend.
Birmingham’s Midland Metro tram link is a great example of joined-up transport planning, backed by the local LEP. As part of the city’s Enterprise Zone, the tram is being extended into the City Centre and connecting to new and existing railway stations. The Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP approved the extension to Centenary Square in 2014, with plans for further extension to Eastside in the latest Growth Deal.
Heart of the South West LEP and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP, have joined the Peninsula Rail Task Force alongside elected local councils, promoting better rail links in the region. LEP backing has secured Growth Deal funding for the key Night Riviera service, including signalling and station improvements.
Public transport and active travel benefits from a further 7% on mixed sustainable transport projects.
Ashton Town Centre Interchange is a multi-modal interchange, linking bus and metro stations in Ashton-under-Lyne, with improved pedestrian and cyclist facilities, supported by Growth Deal funding through the Greater Manchester LEP.
Walking and cycling continue to have the smallest slice of the pie, with just 3% of proposed spend and just 6% of projects.
These schemes are typically the least expensive (in addition to the many health and environmental benefits), so they should be a good investment for LEPs. For example, the Enterprise M3 LEP proposes £4.35M of spend on eleven schemes, including a dedicated walking and cycling riverside walk in Guildford, active travel packages in Andover, Basingstoke and Winchester.
Action for local campaigners
With a new bidding round underway, we’re looking for even better choices from LEPs.
Modern public transport, as our most successful cities show, is the best way to connect people to workplaces. As a recent Government initiative agrees, locating new homes at existing transport hubs (rather than going straight for greenfield sites) is the best way to deliver truly sustainable development. LEPs need to show they understand how to plan transport as part of a development, not merely tack on a road at the end. Our report Getting There shows the way,
Boosting walking and cycling routes creates liveable urban centres, regenerating our high streets, backed up by local jobs. Initiatives like the Sustainable Transport Delivery Excellence Programme led by Sustrans with Department of Transport backing have given LEPs access to expertise on delivering walking and cycling: coupled with the Government’s new Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, we look to LEPs to promote more and better active travel projects in future.
Governance remains an issue. We are still looking for LEPs to be less opaque and involve local people in how they select projects and priorities. Government structures for devolved planning and funding continue to evolve - from regeneration boards and regional spatial strategies to the new devolution deals, city regions and executive Mayors. LEPs need to be clear how they are going to work alongside these emerging devolved structures.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for LEPs, but the decisions they make now will affect local communities for years to come.