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Roads to sustainability
Local Government Chronicle – 26 November 2009

People's concern about carbon emissions is, it seems, strong until it has an impact on the use of their own cars, says Mark Smulian

Environmental anxieties should have led to councils clamouring for a share of the government's 2bn Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) to entice motorists out of their cars by improving public transport.

But the government has tied the fund to road pricing. Apart from London's congestion charge, road pricing so far exists in one street in Durham, though Cambridgeshire CC might adopt it for Cambridge. Elsewhere, referendums on the policy have been against, notably in Greater Manchester.

Matthew Lugg, chair of the County Surveyors Society engineering committee, says: "I could see TIF just go, since it is tied to road pricing and there is no sign of that. I suppose it would be an easy cut, since it is money no-one has really had."

Curbing road traffic

So how are councils' other attempts to curb road traffic faring? The Local Transport Act 2008 gave top-tier councils the power to regulate their bus systems.

Outside London, operators can run whatever services they see fit at any price the market will stand. So if a council implements a traffic reduction programme it cannot guarantee that an acceptable public transport alternative will run.

The act allows for 'quality contracts' to impose a London-type regulated system where voluntary arrangements have failed.

But, as Jonathan Bray, director of the Passenger Transport Executive Group, explains, quality contracts are high risk: "Some existing operators have said they will withdraw all their buses if a competition is even launched, never mind if they lose."

Mr Bray says that an incumbent operator would start at a huge advantage. Therefore effective competition might require transport authorities to buy a depot and bus fleet and offer these to the winning quality-contract bidder.

Unresolved

Transport governance in the main metropolitan conurbations has been further complicated by the unresolved city regions debate. David Sparks (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association's regeneration and transport board, says: "We have agreed the LGA will do some work on how this would apply in city regions. Since you cannot look at transport in isolation, there may have to be changes in governance."

One 'soft' approach bearing fruit is 'travel plans' - practical transport information. Mr Lugg says Leicestershire CC, where he is director of highways, transportation and waste management, has used these, as "people tend to be ignorant of the alternatives to car travel, even where a local authority invests in them".

In Leicestershire, 70% of schools have travel plans to reduce school-run traffic. There has been a 2% reduction over the past two years, equivalent to 1,600 pupils no longer coming to school by car.

Starting with their own operations

If councils' successes in greening travel are sporadic, they can at least make their own operations more environmentally friendly. Mr Lugg says it is now normal for up to 100% of materials to be recycled when a road is upgraded, saving on both landfill tax and the quarrying of virgin aggregates.

Last year, the Wales Audit Office reported on council vehicle fleets, and its findings were applicable UK-wide. It found the Welsh public sector drove 16,000 vehicles in 2006-07 and generated 110,000 tonnes of CO2. Better driver training and investment in more fuel-efficient vehicles were among the suggested means of reducing this. Councils might need to seek small but effective actions like these to make an impact.