The Local Government Association made its case for a radical shift in power away from central Government towards town halls this week, to allow councils to fund most transport infrastructure themselves. The transport select committee is investigating whether or not local authorities have ‘adequate powers to raise resources to fund local transport infrastructure’, and ‘how efficient is the bidding stage for schemes?’ LGA transport adviser Cllr Tony Page told MPs that there were currently too many hold-ups over the release of cash. Protracted talks between councils and the Department for Transport often led to costs for even small projects dramatically rising, and then being deemed unviable – leaving the local authority out of pocket and with the same transport problem it was trying to tackle unsolved. Page said the way forward was to allow local authorities to give funding approval for the majority of major projects, except those of regional or national importance, such as a light rail scheme, and raise the cash for smaller schemes locally. The ‘capricious capping regime’ was frustrating council spending plans. Even if there is a will from Whitehall to spend funds on something such as concessionary fares, ‘the capping regime may mean this will not last’. The LGA hopes that the review by Sir Michael Lyons into the financing and functions of local government would recommend additional sources of revenue. Lyons last week pushed the debate on devolution of transport powers and funding back up the political agenda. His view that councils ‘lacked the necessary levers’ to make road, rail and other major projects needed for economic development a reality chimed with the case made by the LGA (Surveyor, 11 May).
The LGA’s campaign for greater control over whether or not schemes get the funding go-ahead gained another boost this week, when the prime minister asked his new transport secretary to ensure this year’s White Paper on local government reform improves ‘local transport governance’. Further support is likely to come next week, when the transport select committee takes evidence from the County Surveyors’ Society, Hampshire and Devon county councils, and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. Meanwhile, renewed pressure was placed on the Department for Transport this week over its decision on the local transport major schemes – which usually would have been made last December – and Highways Agency ‘regional’ trunk road projects. The South East England Regional transport board wrote an open letter to Alexander over ‘the continued delay over the delivery of essential infrastructure improvements’. Cllr Nick Skellet, chair of the board, highlighted how the silence from the DfT since it submitted its advice on the regional funding allocation in January had put major schemes across the Southeast on ice. The statutory processes for the M4 junction 11 improvement were due to expire in a matter of weeks. ‘I am sure you share the region’s desire to ensure that infrastructure is delivered on time and to cost. This requires a clear response from the Government in a timely manner,’ he said.