Previously, Eric “Rubber Knickers” Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government has got a lot of press claiming to be handing power to local people when in reality taking away local people’s defences against harmful commercial interests who want to pave the fields with sprawl and ruin town centres.
But Greg Clark, the minister for decentralisation, planning policy and cities, has finally made a suggestion that is not entirely awful: transport policy independence for the English core cities. Devolution of transport policy has been a great success, driving innovation and progress in a way that central government has been unable or unwilling to do. In Scotland, the Beeching Axe is being rolled back. In London, the Congestion Charge has paid for massive public transport and public realm improvements, including innovations from Oyster to the Overground. In Wales, legislation for cycle network standards is on the agenda for the current assembly term.
Giving the core cities — Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester (which already has TfGM), Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield — transport policy powers equivalent to the Mayor and TfL (though hopefully correcting the mistakes in the London model before applying it) could, under the right local leaders, drive further innovation. Bristol and Newcastle might choose to show the country how to design streets in which people can cycle. The Yorkshire/Lancashire cities might club together to improve their intercity rail.
But it all depends on the money. A few of the core cities already have trams or metros, but only because the cities could persuade central government to pay. Others got nothing — Bristol is left desperately scrabbling around for the pennies to pay for a barely-better-than-nothing Bus Rapid Transit system because ministers won’t give it a tram.
Devolution of urban transport policy could be an excellent move, but only if Pickles and Clark make sure that the cities get the money, the powers, and the continuing central government support that they would need if they are to make real progress. Otherwise it’s just the devolution of blame for the current mess — the shirking of responsibility. Letting cities develop policies doesn’t make up for having none of your own.