By Tim Crump
Anyone with an ounce of pragmatism in them will invariably find it hard, especially in the current economic climate, to justify the creation of new a transport quango. Consequently when Bristol Lib Dem councillor Dr Jon Rogers was out-voted by his colleagues on the West of England Partnership’s Joint Transport Executive Committee when trying to do just that, it initially seemed understandable.
The prime opponent, North Somerset councillor Elfan Ap Rees voiced his opposition by questioning why we’d want to pay for a review which could lead to yet another layer of bureaucracy at the expense of taxpayers.
However, the layer of bureaucracy in question is what’s known as an Integrated Transport Authority (ITA). The six largest provincial cities in England have had them since legislation was passed in 2008, converted from their existing Passenger Transport Authorities (PTAs) and giving them beefed-up decision-making and fundraising powers. This passed greater control of local transport to those living locally, travelling locally, putting up with local congestion and generally knowing which transport problems needed addressing and how.
An ITA that would work here would need to extend beyond the existing city limits, which Bristol outgrew a long time ago. Any comprehensive transport initiative will therefore need co-operation between Bristol and the three authorities that border it: Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
And that’s why we have the West of England Partnership (WoEP). It puts councillors from all four authorities into executive committees to get things done in and around Bristol. Unfortunately, with constituencies consisting partly of overspill from Bristol’s city boundaries but mainly made up of towns and villages that don’t benefit from Bristol-centric schemes as much as Bristolians do, they might not agree on everything — especially when they’re from different political parties.
Their reluctance could, of course, simply be down to a difference of opinion – though interestingly the creation of an ITA has cross-party support within Bristol City Council.
Opponents of an ITA would also argue that the councillors on the WoEP’s transport executive serve our needs perfectly adequately— but how much are they really allowed to deliver?
Anything used to measure the effectiveness of a Bristol transport committee with executive powers will be subject to value judgements, but I defy any Bristolian to disagree with the following simple yardstick: “Can it deliver anything better than the BRT?”
The BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system is a bendy bus with covered-up wheel arches designed to look like something other than a bus — and it looks like the most likely compromise for improved transport in Bristol at present. The scheme will make use of some disused railway routes to improve journey times, but won’t use rails or overhead lines anywhere. The BRT (referred to by some as the ‘ShamTram’) won’t convince anyone that we’re getting something suitable for a city the size of Bristol; nor does it have the best green credentials, with tangible fuel emissions and possible use of cycle routes for its vehicles.
Bristol deserves some kind of tram or trolleybus – light or heavy. For some reason statistics show that people — particularly the affluent – won’t give up their cars to use a rapid transit bus. Yet a significant percentage will for a tram or trolleybus. And nowhere is that more relevant in than Bristol. High levels of prosperity are much in evidence here when you look at the phalanx of pricey German cars crawling into town every weekday morning from just about every district within a two-mile radius of the Downs. Many of these people are no doubt proud to live in a city that not long ago was judged to be the greenest in the country — but they won’t give up their cars easily.
The burning question, of course, is could an ITA deliver something better than the BRT? The evidence is overwhelmingly positive. Of the six areas that were automatically conferred ITA status only two had no existing tram or subway system – Leeds and Merseyside. Both these areas had plans for supertram systems crushed by Alistair Darling four or five years ago (just as Bristol did), but since then their approaches have been very different:
Merseyside do not seem to have taken their ITA status very seriously. If you look at Merseytravel’s website it’s clear they’ve simply changed the name of their PTA and little more, not detailing any plans for the future and not even mentioning their change to ITA status. And guess what? A report in the Liverpool Echo just over a month ago confirmed that the proposed Merseytram scheme — revived with hopes of government funding in April 2008 — has been effectively killed off for the foreseeable future.
Leeds, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that an ITA runs their transport network. Their ITA’s Metro site is up to date, informative and gives news on their new trolleybus scheme. Their bid went to the Department for Transport at the end of last month.
Two very different results, then, from two large metropolitan areas – one embracing its ITA status, the other all but ignoring it.
Everything points to an ITA for Bristol. Independent think tank Centre for Cities actually recommended in 2008 that we should have an ITA despite not having an existing PTA that could be easily converted. Moreover, the legislation specifically details procedures for cases where not all of the authorities involved agree on the creation of an ITA — which could easily have been written specifically with Bristol in mind.
Bristol West MP Stephen Williams (Lib Dem) probed Gordon Brown in respect of a proposed ITA in parliament recently, though no bid had in fact been made. The way forward seems to be to ask for a Governance Review at Westminster, which could lead to an ITA for Bristol if at least two of the authorities concerned request it.
Clearly, an ITA won’t ultimately work without consent from all four authorities, but a request for a Governance Review would bring our plight to the attention of No 10. Digging their heels in at a West of England Partnership committee meeting is one thing for councillors in our neighbouring unitaries – but some inertia combined with suitable encouragement from Westminster may change things a little. Besides, if the formation of an ITA was pursued outside of the WoEP then who knows how easy it might be to progress?
We may get stuck with the BRT; we may get something better. But it doesn’t end there. An ITA will have a wider remit, looking at all aspects of travel in and around Bristol including the environment, with resources to deliver improvements which the existing Joint Transport Executive Committee, as one of several arms of the WoEP no doubt does not.
Bristol could be hosting World Cup football in nine years’ time. Listening to a few tourists criticising our public transport is one thing, but several thousand football fans doing the same with the whole world watching us could make for a rather embarrassing summer. If we can’t get enough support from our neighbouring authorities maybe a direct appeal to the Department for Transport will help. Let’s hope they’re not too busy working on the Leeds trolleybus project…