The Transport Select Committee is inquiring into how the Government sets its strategic transport objectives and how these objectives do – or should – influence investment in, and cross-government planning of, services, networks and infrastructure. In August 2023, they called for evidence to investigate what difference clear national objectives could make (1). Leeds Civic Trust responded by presenting a case for a national transport strategy in England. Read our response below:
England lacks a national transport body or strategy despite Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and some regions, having their own strategies. This means that transport planning is dispersed among several government departments, devolved transport bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and modal transport bodies like National Highways or Network Rail.
As a result, these bodies have a variety of individual strategies that are generally focused on single transport modes (e.g. ‘Bus back Better’ (2) for buses, the ‘Road Investment Strategy’ (3) for the road network, ‘Integrated Rail Plan’ (4) for the rail network, etc.).
The outcome is fragmentation between the priorities and functions of the different bodies which hamper local governance and decision-making, creating siloed working between different transport modes. Given that people’s transport needs are multi-modal, the reality is a transport system that is failing to meet the needs of the population.
Transport is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. A national transport strategy should demonstrate how the transport network contributes to wider government priorities. The lack of cohesion hinders the UK’s response to urgent societal challenges like climate change, rising social and health inequalities and building back better in a post-pandemic world, where travel patterns have failed to return to pre-pandemic levels. As such, long-term national strategic social, environmental and economic goals are undermined by fragmentation in transport planning which fails to support a coherent transport network and associated services. This is evidenced by major delays with national projects such as High Speed 2 and the North and Midland’s Integrated Rail Plan.
Working towards a national transport strategy for England could enable the delivery of long-term national and local priorities that support a sustainable, integrated and people-centred transport system in England that is better equipped to address urgent national challenges.
Drawing from evidence across the UK and the city of Leeds, this paper presents a case for a national transport strategy in England by providing recommendations on what a national strategy could involve.
1 – An overarching vision to connect transport and planning
A national strategy can unify the existing variety of strategies into an overarching vision. Its purpose should not be to provide specific detail but as a guiding framework and set of principles that integrate different levels of government and transport modes. This vision and principles should align with the government’s broader strategic social, economic, and environmental objectives – like health and wellbeing, climate goals and tackling inequalities.
Scotland and Wales, for instance, have national transport strategies that provide a strategic framework of priorities rather than specific interventions. The Welsh vision aims for ‘an accessible, sustainable and efficient transport system’ with three main priorities: reducing the need to travel by bringing services closer to people, door-to-door accessibility and encouraging sustainable transport (5). The Scottish vision aims for a ‘sustainable, inclusive, safe and accessible transport system’ and focuses on reducing inequalities, tackling climate action, delivering inclusive growth and improving health and wellbeing (6).
Both these strategies are long-term visions for their transport systems that span 20 years and uphold principles that connect transport planning with spatial planning, focusing new housing developments around existing town centres or transport links rather than, as in England, focusing on the number of houses being developed.
2 – Fairness in local investments and services
Establishing a guiding framework could enable stronger safeguarding of regional and local needs in transport planning. The current incohesive framework creates disparities in investment and services between localities. Research from the Institute for Public Policy Research evidences a regional investment gap where the average annual public transport spending per head in the UK was £430, rising to £864 in London and down to £328 in Yorkshire and Humber between 2009-2020 (7).
This translates into geographical differences in service levels in the UK and internationally. For example, rail journeys between major cities in the Midlands and the North tend to be slower than those in London and the South East (8). Moreover, a recent report from the Centre for Cities identified 67% of people in large European cities can reach their city centre by public transport within 30 minutes compared to only 40% of people living in the UK’s biggest cities outside of London (9).
Cities such as Leeds feel the local impacts of this investment gap. Public funding for bus services was cut by 36% between 2010 and 2018 in West Yorkshire which, alongside other factors (10), has contributed to a more than 10% reduction in bus patronage since 2000 (11). A more coherent national framework could ensure transport investment is more fairly distributed across regions and cities, supporting service improvements.
3 – Decentralising investment powers
Given how well-positioned regions and Local Transport Authorities (LTA) are for identifying local needs, a national strategy could be most effective if local perspectives are accounted for rather than imposing a national view. Specifically, the current devolution of funding and investment can undermine the independence of LTAs who often bid for small amounts of funding with constraints or earmarked for specific purposes or modes. Funding needs to be longer-term with fewer local restrictions.
For instance, programmes like the Department for Transport’s ‘Active Travel Fund’ (12), which supported several temporary projects during the Covid-19 pandemic, provide investment for cycling and walking infrastructure focused on sub-sections of roads, then requiring the LTA to seek alternative funding pots to invest in the different stretches of the same road. An overarching framework provides a strong basis for decentralising investment powers, removing the competitive nature of funding and better accounting for local needs.
In addition, decentralisation of long-term funding for transport would allow cities like Leeds to prioritise between modes, based on local needs. Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a mass transit system (13) and thus has a particular need to invest in bus services in comparison to other English cities.
4 – A clear governance framework
The lack of an integrated, multi-modal strategy means that fragmentation occurs on different levels and responsibilities for decision-making are unclear. A national strategy could provide a clear governance framework that supports the devolution of effective decision-making and prioritisation. Both the Scottish and Welsh Strategies, for instance, have supplemented their visions with more regularly updated, phased delivery programmes which make them measurable and accountable.
Higher levels of transparency could also build greater levels of popular support and engagement with new policies that are required to meet national goals. This is particularly pertinent in a highly polarised context associated with changes in neighbourhood planning, such as recent controversies surrounding ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhood’ schemes in cities like Oxford (14).
Clear monitoring and evaluation processes are essential, including holistic indicators to reflect the multi-faceted nature of transport systems. This could ensure an effective balance between a long-term vision with more fluid short-term priorities that can respond flexibly to political uncertainty and emerging contexts.
Towards an national strategy
Taken together, an overarching vision connecting planning and transport, fairness and decentralisation in investment and a clear governance framework would provide Leeds with a supporting structure to prioritise, plan and deliver transport systems that realise its ambition to reach net zero and tackle health inequalities by becoming a ‘city where you don’t need a car’ (15).