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Regular feature: Issue 603 17 Aug 2012

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Devolving local transport budgets: improving or worsening services?

A drive to devolve town hall funds to local areas is increasingly being extended to large swathes of local transport budgets with the aim of providing services that better reflect local priorities. But questions have been raised about the impact of reducing the say of town halls and officers on allocating funds, as Lee Baker finds out

Lee Baker

The policy to give local communities responsibility for deciding how to spend a proportion of existing local transport funds is at a crossroads. Some authorities are extending the devolution of a significant chunk of funding streams that were previously allocated centrally by cabinets on the recommendations of transport officers. Yet at least one, which has devolved funds in the past, is now re-thinking the policy.

The coalition Government views so-called participative budgeting as a mechanism to promote localism – ministers’ support for the process follows the previous Government’s drive for every council to have introduced participative budgeting by this year.

A national evaluation of the process by the Department for Communities and Local Government, published last autumn, found that the local authorities that had blazed a trail in giving communities a say over how some funds are spent had up to then typically involved relatively small budgets of £100,000 or less. These funding pots were also usually separate to mainstream budgets for transport and other services.

The Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, one of the ‘Big Society vanguard’ authorities established early in the life of this Government, emphasised that participative budgeting would not affect core budgets (LTT 21 Dec 10). Instead, Windsor & Maidenhead established a specific pot of money earmarked for residents’ priorities as identified in a consultation with residents.

The first such exercise allowed residents to rank a list of eight possible projects to be funded from a £300,000 capital budget introduced in addition to the existing capital budget. This saw cycling schemes chosen as a priority, including improvements to the A308 cycle route between Maidenhead and Windsor, a new cycle route and a new cycle compound. In the second such exercise road maintenance came out as the top priority from a list of ten possible borough-wide projects, leading to an extra £125,000 capital funding being allocated to reserve schemes that would not have been funded with the existing £1.8m budget. There were this time also specific pots of money of between £25,000 and £50,000 for three specific geographical areas, with a ‘pay-on-foot’ scheme for a car park winning most votes in Maidenhead.

While Windsor & Maidenhead is continuing the policy with a third consultation for this financial year, members have decided a ‘version 2.0’ is needed for 2013/14. They want to move the scheme away from residents voting for pre-defined projects out of a discrete budget to one in which residents shape the council’s overall budget. The council will take residents through different budget scenarios on-line and ask them to decide if the council’s budget priorities are appropriate.

Influencing mainstream budgets

In addition, residents will also be able to propose capital projects funded from the council’s single capital pot through the introduction of seven to ten neighbourhood plans across the borough. Gordon Oliver, Windsor &?Maidenhead’s principal transport policy officer, tells LTT: “These are developments of our participatory budgeting initiative and are an attempt to engage local residents in influencing the allocation of mainstream budgets.” Oliver says that officers had to provide a ‘health-check’ to proposals in the neighbourhood plans to ensure that they could feasibly be built. “We’ve had some interesting ideas, including new junctions off a motorway. We have to advise on the deliverability aspects.” He emphasises, however, that there is nothing to stop residents adopting plans with expensive or difficult-to-deliver items as long as they are technically feasible. “You have local plans drawn up by officers with aspirations for infrastructure projects that have not been delivered for decades.”

The devolution of mainstream budgets for local transport schemes, as opposed to the introduction of new discretionary funds additional to mainstream budgets, is something that a number of councils are now opting to do.


Officers’ continuing role?

Essex County Council, for example, has established new local highways panels for each district or borough area that will collectively be responsible for deciding how its £8m budget for local transport schemes is spent. The panels, chaired by county councillors, will also include district/borough and parish councillors and are designed to give local communities a role in proposing transport schemes. A spokesman tells LTT that the panels will not simply look at lists of projects already proposed, designed and ready to be built, but will be involved earlier in the process. Officers will have a continuing role, he says.

“In looking at potential schemes, the local highways panels will consider issues such as value for money and how the project improves safety and reduces congestion. We are developing a scoring matrix to enable projects to be assessed.  Some projects were ready for progression at the start of the new process, such as casualty reduction schemes.

“A number of highways officers will provide support to each group. Where necessary other highways officers will provide detailed information and guidance about specific proposed projects. They will also assess proposals from the panels to ensure that they can be delivered.” To date, the panels have already allocated over £1m of funds to proposals the community wants to see, including new bus stops, improved signage and road markings, and the installation of a zebra crossing. The panels cannot, however, propose priorities for the highway maintenance budget, worth £36m this financial year.

The spokesman explains: “This is because it would offer better value for money to keep this centralised. It allows all roads across Essex to be maintained to a consistent standard. We are legally responsible for maintaining the road network.”

This statutory role to maintain highway networks has not, however, prevented South Gloucestershire Council from deciding to devolve £300,000 or just under a fifth of its £1.7m annual maintenance budget to four area fora covering different communities. This is in addition to the £100,000 each area forum is allocating this financial year on local transport items such as new street lighting, mini-roundabouts and drop kerbs. Councillor Ruth Davis, the leader of the local Lib Dems, which tabled the motion that prompted the move, tells LTT: “This is about extending a devolution which has proven success.”

Extending devolution

Councillor Davis says that the area forums produce task lists of potential schemes for officers to take forward, made up of proposals from councillors, parish councils and residents. “This is not just reacting to what officers say. When officers decide where to spend the money, some work suddenly happens on residents’ streets and they say to us ‘why are you spending money there, when there’s a problem over there on a street that is used much more?’”

She says the area fora hold packed meetings in which residents are vocal about the priorities for safety schemes. They are also able to make trade-offs and to not only think about their immediate surroundings, she claims. “People know that if the safety of a road is improved in Yate, it will benefit people living elsewhere who use that road too.”

Officers who advised the planning, transportation and strategic environment committee, which confirmed the devolution of the funds, warned that this could lead to a deterioration in network condition (LTT 20 Jul). Steve Evans, director of environment and communities at South Gloucestershire, said that if funds were not allocated according to a prioritisation system that takes into account condition reports, there was a risk that this would result “in a general deterioration of the network condition and condition targets may not be met”. Evans said that the prioritisation scores would be submitted to the area fora for their consideration. Officers will monitor the impact of the devolution on condition of the highway network and advise if there is a deterioration.

Councillor Davis says she is relaxed about this advice. “Councillors and residents can provide information not necessarily available to officers on how the network is actually used. There were houses in my area using the street that they backed onto, rather than their front doors, and that’s where the maintenance was required but that was apparently not understood – and it wouldn’t be, just by looking at a map.”

Streets ‘more than an asset’

Davis insists that councillors are not ignoring the asset management plan approach in which officers identify streets needing preventative treatment to prevent potholes from forming that are more expensive to treat. “Of course we will continue to listen to what officers say. But we know our patches and we know what the problems are. Why have councillors who can feed in residents’ views at all, if it’s just about treating an asset?” 

She disputes the idea that there is only one programme of maintenance that will arrest deterioration. “At any one time, you have probably got a number of stretches of road all needing preventative maintenance, and the area fora will be able to decide which are the most pressing in terms of their use. This is not about discarding officers’ advice at all, but supplementing it with local knowledge.”

The area fora will meet in the autumn in order to determine their maintenance priorities for 2013/14.

In contrast to South Gloucestershire, Rochdale Council will no longer devolve a proportion of its capital budget for maintenance to local communities. The authority has a longstanding policy of devolution, having established  four township committees for local decision-making in 1992 under a Labour administration and then given them influence over programmes of mainstream expenditure in 2007 under a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. This included capital funding for traffic/highway improvement schemes from 2007/08 to 2010/11.

Identifying highways for repair

None of this year’s £2.4m highways capital funding will be devolved to townships “due to the requirements of Transport Asset Management Plan (TAMP) delivery and the removal of integrated transport block funding,” according to Helen Smith, head of property and highways at Rochdale. The devolution of revenue funding for highway maintenance to township committees was stopped in 2010/11. Smith recently added: “To respond to the essential high levels of investment required across the highway network, no discretionary funding for 2012/13 can be apportioned to townships.”

Smith advised that the TAMP “allows the service to efficiently manage the highway network and identify the sections of highway which are in most need of repair”.

Furthermore, Rochdale’s cabinet agreed that capital funding for highways improvement/local safety schemes would no longer be decided by the township committees because the Combined Authority for Greater Manchester decided that no integrated transport block capital funding would be allocated to the districts for minor works as it was in previous years. 

Township committees will retain direct control over discretionary budgets including ‘priority projects fund’ which can be allocated to local transport projects if the committees wish. The Pennines township, for example, allocated £46,000 of its £65,000 from this budget to highways and traffic projects in 2011/12.

Opposition councillors have criticised these decisions for reversing devolution. Councillor Andy Kelly, who sits on the Pennine township committee, says:?“If we simply have a central plan for maintenance with a three-year schedule of works, why have elected members? Let local residents simply look at the timetable of when things are scheduled and be done!”

However, councillor Jacqueline Beswick, Rochdale’s cabinet member for highways, signalled that the priority programme for improvement works for highways maintenance for 2013/14 drawn up by officers are only “proposals”. She says that these have been outlined on a detailed, street-by-street basis because they will need to be confirmed by the township committees in the autumn.

Reconciling data and democracy

Rochdale council leader councillor Colin Lambert tells LTT that the township committees that his party established are “crucial”. He says:?“We will as a council continue to listen to their advice because townships know their localities best.”

Discussions are on-going in the council on what weight the township priorities should have in deciding the priorities for the maintenance programme over the next three years, which has been boosted by £10m in extra funding. A decision will be made in October on the weight that each of six proposed criteria will have in determining what streets are treated in future.

The priorities of the township committees are one of the six criteria; the repair requirements as identified through data on third party tripping claims are a new criteria proposed by officers, alongside data from condition surveys.

Reconciling the desire of local politicians to give residents a say on the priorities of local transport spending and the pressure to have a more data-led approach is something that DfT officials have considered. The DfT’s Highway Maintenance Efficiency Programme lead official, Haydn Davies, initiating a debate on improving service effectiveness at the June ‘Future of Highways Delivery’ conference in Manchester, suggested to delegates that a localist approach might have scope to improve customer satisfaction, an aim of the Potholes Review.

However, that review does not provide an answer to how customers can be given a bigger say at the same time as following an asset management approach led by data. While it says that highway users and residents should be consulted on maintenance priorities because they “will not understand or accept the level of service if they have not been involved in its development,” it only suggests “appropriate local processes” to do this.

Davies said the HMEP ‘Cost/quality/customer’ project to produce a methodology to pinpoint an outcome-based measure of value-for-money reflecting community priorities as well as performance measurement data would assist with reconciling localism and asset management planning. Davies said:?“My view is that these dimensions, cost, quality and customer perception, are all valid ways of viewing highways maintenance and need to be considered concurrently, but that local highway authorities can choose to give the three dimensions different weights.”

Matthew Lugg, seconded to the DfT as a HMEP advocate, and Potholes Review lead, tells LTT: “There is the risk with devolving budgets that money could be put where it will attract votes rather than where the investment needs are. However, with the non-strategic routes and footways, there is scope for local decision-making that considers the use of parts of the network as well as the overall needs of the asset. Which routes are people walking to the local school? That can be considered locally.

“However, I’d be wary of fragmenting budgets too much by devolving them to very small areas, because it’d become too complicated to put together a coherent investment plan. And on the strategic network, you’d want to retain a network-wide view of the needs of the asset.”

 

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