The levelling up white paper seeks London-style transport for all, but service cuts are now looming and we risk moving backwards

Prime minister Boris Johnson and ‘levelling up secretary’ Michael Gove launched the white paper last week with a visit to Blackpool Transport

Is that it?

That was the pithy and somewhat scornful reaction from Labour’s Lisa Nandy to the publication of the government’s long awaited Levelling Up proposals.

The 249-page document has certainly had a long gestation period. Indeed, in the prime minister’s introduction, he proudly states that “From day one, the defining mission of this government has been to level up the country.”

I suspect that the phrase “levelling up” has probably been more used than any other phrase in political circles since the general election of 2019, although it may have been overtaken recently by “partygate”.

So it was reasonable to expect something radical and comprehensive, a real game-changer. In fact, the document is not without ideas but like so much that succumbs to the prime minister’s uncontrolled boosterism, it has been hugely oversold.

This has happened before. It was not long ago that the record investment of £96bn in rail was attacked as inadequate, largely because the boosterism had led people to believe almost double that would be provided. But in this, as in so much else, the prime minister never learns.

He, and Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary (what an absurd title), will not have been helped by the iron hand of the chancellor who has ensured that very little new money is made available, so that funding references in the paper are virtually all recycled from earlier announcements.

Those of a particularly conspiratorial nature will conclude that the chancellor is busy hobbling any cabinet colleagues who might want to stand in what is virtually certain, pretty soon, to be a Conservative Party leadership contest, just as the chancellor cleverly tied the PM into a joint newspaper article confirming that the rise in National Insurance will go ahead, when the PM had been busy sending out signals behind the scenes to unhappy backbenchers that it could be reconsidered.

As far as the Treasury is concerned, levelling up is a luxury that cannot be afforded

The truth is rather more prosaic. The Treasury is seriously alarmed that the public finances are spiralling out of control, and the chancellor is politically alarmed by the cost of living crisis fast coming up on the rails. As far as the Treasury is concerned, levelling up is a luxury that cannot be afforded.

So we have a document that reads more like a university thesis rather than a set of policies. We are treated to thoughts on the Italian renaissance, to the Medici model, and to our own industrial revolution back in the eighteenth century. That, and musings on geographical disparities, take up the first hundred pages. This is followed by a further sixty pages of often abstract observations on systems, and it is only on page 159 that we actually get on to the policies. Even then, much of what is there is a rehash of existing government announcements.

According to the newspapers a couple of days before the document was released, Michael Gove himself thought that the white paper was rubbish, except he is alleged to have used a rather more earthy word which I will spare the refined readers of Passenger Transport.

So what of the transport elements in the white paper? These fill fewer than ten pages. And with new money in short supply, the document instead relies on structural change to make an impact.

Perhaps the biggest pledge is to devolve further powers to local level. The document states: “By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.”

This is welcome, especially the idea of simplifying budgets and providing a longer budget settlement period to allow proper planning. Rail for a long time has operated within five-year control periods. We need to move towards that at local authority level.

Specifically on transport, the white paper says: “By 2030 local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing.”

This is also welcome, but again not new. It essentially repeats the pledge to extend Pay-As-You-Go as referred to in the recent policy paper on rail. This, by the way, effectively brings in single leg pricing by the back door, another welcome change. The £360m dedicated to extending contactless ticketing comes from the last Conservative Party manifesto.

And note the repeated use of the 2030 date throughout the paper. Call me cynical, but like the government’s ambitious net zero target, this puts delivery day well past the next election, and the one after that.

In fairness, the government does seem genuinely committed to rolling out the London model, which is a good thing and realistically can indeed be achieved by 2030

In fairness, the government does seem genuinely committed to rolling out the London model, which is a good thing and realistically can indeed be achieved by 2030.

This model sets a daily cap across all public transport traction modes, and has undoubtedly played a significant part in driving up public transport use in the capital. Sadiq Khan, though, may have had a wry smile about the citing of London as a model to follow when it is presently facing cuts to services and above inflation increases in fares, a scenario he lays firmly at the door of the government.

And look again at the quote above. It does not refer to the cost of travelling, though in its paper, the government clearly accepts high fares are a bar to passenger usage. But then again, how could they not?

One of the more encouraging parts of the document is the innovative approach planned for Cornwall. Here is a place where bus services have improved markedly but the high cost of fares has dampened growth. So we are to see a pilot project, to start shortly, which will reduce fares by about 30% in a new Superbus network. Moreover, the bus services will be linked with GWR rail services under a new banner of Transport for Cornwall.

I have always believed that reducing fares can in some circumstances lead to higher income as the extra number of paying passengers outweighs the loss on an individual sale.

Some years ago I persuaded Southern to cut the price of season tickets between Lewes and Eastbourne. They reduced by a third and Southern, which had really agreed to the pilot just to get me off their backs, actually made a small profit on the initiative. Meanwhile, a whole lot of cars disappeared from the parallel A27. Result: cheaper fares for passengers, more money for Southern, less congestion on the road. And all at no cost to the taxpayer. What’s not to like?

So we need more such schemes. The white paper also promises what it calls “ambitious plans for bus improvement, enhancing services and reducing fares” in other selected areas. Stoke-on-Trent, Portsmouth, Luton, Warrington and Derbyshire are mentioned. This, I assume, is some cherry-picking from the yet to be announced outcome to the BSIP (Bus Service Improvement Plan) process. Again, this is all very welcome.

The crux of the matter, however, is that the genuine aspirations from the Department for Transport, which really does want to deliver big improvements to public transport, are tempered by matters external to them.

One of these is the backwash from Covid, which has seen a car-based recovery and where rail in particular is struggling to reclaim passengers, not least because home working has now become a standard option for many.

The consequence of this is that rail operators have been asked by the government to save 10% in costs, which in turn means the sorts of service cuts we are now seeing. Meanwhile, commercial bus operators are looking at real deep cuts for the first time, for even though bus has recovered better than rail, it is still way short of its pre-pandemic passenger numbers.

Then there is the Treasury, which wants cuts to public revenue funding for rail and bus and has yet even to agree to an extension of emergency funding past the end of March. Meanwhile, it continues a 12-year freeze on fuel duty for private motorists and lorry drivers.

We are in danger in 2022 of creating a vicious circle where public transport services get worse and fares get hiked up, leading to increased modal shift to road, while the government sets out ambitious plans for 2030

We are in danger in 2022 of creating a vicious circle where public transport services get worse and fares get hiked up, leading to increased modal shift to road, while the government sets out ambitious plans for 2030.

I think the government means well, but overall the effect is incoherent. The various levers they have their hands on are pulling transport in opposite directions.

The white paper correctly says: “There has been no shortage of attempts to tackle geographical disparities in the UK over the past century. These have been insufficient to close the widening gaps.”

Sadly, this latest attempt looks likely to continue that trend.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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