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Does transport investment require further devolution?

Mike Batheram

The long standing debate about devolution and autonomy of power to local government has been highlighted by the Core Cities report. Essentially the eight core cities, like many local authorities across the UK, want more fiscal control of taxation and therefore public spending that takes place in their area.

Drawing upon international comparisons, the report notes that innovation is fostered through local government having more discretion over local public sector spending. Services can be streamlined and targeted more effectively to address local needs, while also reducing duplication and joining up services for benefit of the public.

Within transport governance there have already been steps forward in relation to devolution of responsibility in rail, through devolution of rail services franchising, which is being advanced by Rail North, a group of northern transport authorities and the West Midlands. The benefits associated with rail devolution include integration of local bus services and transport networks with the rail services, with increases in passenger use and improved customer experience. There have been long standing calls for greater devolution of funding and powers, which in the case of transport could help drive reform and improvement of local transport networks.

Aligned with all of this is the need to maximise benefits associated with the High Speed 2 rail network, which will also ensure that the development and growth opportunities are realised. Critics of devolution, however, argue that there is still a firm requirement to maintain centralised control of investment programmes to ensure sector based requirements are addressed. However, the Core Cities Report clearly illustrates that by looking internationally we can see that such investment programmes are better managed locally, with transport being a key area of significant success, particularly across mainland Europe. For the UK to be successful, therefore, our towns and cities need fast and reliable transport and communication networks. To secure the required step change will need more local control and autonomy over public sector service delivery and investment, which for transport ultimately means devolution of responsibility to local government, including local authorities/Integrated Transport Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Mike Batheram is local government director at WSP UK

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