LAST WEEK Alistair Darling's Department for Transport heralded a fundamental shift in the way transport schemes are to be prioritised.
New Regional Transport Boards, to be set up to represent the eight English regions outside London, will administer almost £5bn of transport funding between them over the next three years.
But money will be tight. These funds must cover investment in local roads maintenance, smaller local schemes such as bus lanes and cycleways, and major road and tram schemes. This includes local authority schemes and Highways Agency schemes deemed by the DfT to be of regional rather than national importance (News last week).
So how will it work? Two regions have already conducted pilot schemes to test the operation of the new approach.
Experiments in both Yorkshire & Humber and the South East regions concluded this autumn, with positive experiences reported.
Both pilots saw boards manned by representatives from the regional assembly and other concerned parties, including the Strategic Rail Authority, Highways Agency, regional development agencies and local government offices.
In the south east, four of the seven assembly members were councillors also serving on local authorities within the region.
But the pilot's final report still noted potential problems with the democratic legitimacy of decisions.
'Not all these decisions will be well received and the decisions of the board may be challenged, ' states the report.
'In this context the board will require secure foundations that give it the legitimacy to act.'
South East Regional Assembly head of transport planning Martin Tugwell was part of the board's advisory officer panel.
He confirmed that he did not intend the RTBs to take any powers from existing, elected local authorities.
He added: 'Our experience has been very positive. The main advantages are that it gives a much stronger voice from the region into the decision-making process.
'The region is giving its views directly to the DfT about where the priorities lie and where we should be putting in money.
'We have taken the initiative to move forward with this work and we would welcome the consultation launched this week as a reinforcement of what we should be doing.'
But there are still reservations.
The need to incorporate rail into the RTBs' remit was a feature of both regions' final reports, enabling a more integrated approach. RTBs are currently kept out of rail.
At the same time work is continuing in the south east to formulate a methodology to decide which schemes best fit criteria for adoption.
Similar consideration is being given to this aspect elsewhere in the country.
South West Regional Assembly transport policy manager Chris Mitchell said: 'We have had a lot of discussions about techniques and prioritisation.
'If the government is asking what the priorities are then we will need a mechanism to address that.'
A consultation period opened this week and closes in March, so few regions have finalised details of precisely how they intend RTBs to operate.
But Mitchell highlighted a handful of pros and cons.
'It can bring about better integration between elements, ' he said. 'You can study housing, transport and environment but at the end of the day it's important to see what's cross-cutting and how you pull all the elements together.
'Focusing on prioritisation has advantages and disadvantages.
'It requires you to make decisions; you can't pass the buck. If you are asking people to prioritise, there will be winners and losers.'
Mitchell said the Assembly would welcome a stronger role, moving away from the existing loose arrangement, but he emphasised that ministers would retain the final say.