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Regional leadership must be at heart of decarbonising transport

Sub-national transport bodies are well placed to help the Government shape the programmes, funding and delivery mechanisms required to achieve net zero, writes James Golding-Graham

James Golding-Graham
27 July 2021
James Golding-Graham: ‘STBs can use their strategic overview to identify opportunities to simplify and rationalise the way we plan for, develop and deliver investment’
James Golding-Graham: ‘STBs can use their strategic overview to identify opportunities to simplify and rationalise the way we plan for, develop and deliver investment’
England’s sub-national transport bodies
England’s sub-national transport bodies


The Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) contains several world leading elements and sets the framework for us all to rise to the challenge and opportunities that reaching net zero presents. 

The imperative to decarbonise the transport system provides the single biggest opportunity for a step-change in the way we approach mobility, connectivity, planning and personal consumption.

“Delivering decarbonisation through places” is rightly one of the central strands of the TDP. The plan sets out the role of local and regional leadership and specifically sub-national transport bodies (STBs) in working with the Government to shape the programmes, funding and delivery mechanisms that we require to achieve transport decarbonisation.

There are choices to make: some highways infrastructure may no longer be appropriate if we are to meet the UK’s legally binding decarbonisation targets, while the case for other interventions will be made stronger. What we know for certain is that if we don’t rapidly change our approach to planning and delivering connectivity, we will not meet net zero by 2050. Moreover, we will have failed to seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make our region and country a better place to live and do business.

Living locally

The pandemic has shown how it is possible to quickly effect widespread change to protect our society. The way people and businesses access services and opportunities will continue to evolve with emerging trends accelerated by Covid-19. Research commissioned by England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) shows that if people who commuted by car pre-Covid but are now working from home were to continue to do so for two days per week, 10-12% of peak hour traffic could be removed from our roads.

This has fundamental implications for the way we plan for places, the assumed need to travel, and the way we invest. It’s why the prime minister sees the potential for people to “live local and prosper” rather than being forced to seek success only in the biggest cities. Transport is a derived demand, and these types of societal changes could have a profound impact on our transport system.

A central driver for change is the economic opportunity decarbonisation creates. Necessity is the mother of invention: the necessity to decarbonise is creating new markets and new business opportunities. The key role for the public sector is to provide the conditions to support and harness private sector innovation that will drive decarbonisation.

Ensuring we grasp the opportunities to achieve net zero requires leadership at national, regional and local government. STBs have a significant role in working with the Government to help shape the programmes, funding and delivery mechanisms required to achieve the UK’s legally binding targets.  

STBs are ideally placed to deliver the strong regional leadership which is vital to achieving the aims as set out in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan. The TDP’s targets for the decarbonisation of vehicles are a major step forwards, though we welcome the recognition that this alone will not be enough to reach net zero. 

A place-based framework

As STBs, our focus is on understanding users’ needs (both individual and business) and planning for this system-wide, at scale. Our vision-led, evidence-based transport strategies provide a place-based framework for realising change.

STBs look across not just the transport sector, but at connectivity holistically across both public sector and commercial solutions and consider wider factors such as digital connectivity and utilities infrastructure. All this helps to identify the investment needed to achieve net zero.

To give an example: EEH modelling shows that supporting the electrification of the region’s road fleet will require a circa 200% increase in energy supply. To deliver this will require significant – and timely - investment in low carbon enabling infrastructure and, a coordinated approach to enable and encourage the required level of investment in enhanced low carbon energy generation, supply and distribution systems. More importantly that investment needs to be actively planned to complement the investment being made in transport infrastructure and services. 

STBs can use their strategic overview to identify opportunities to simplify and rationalise the way we plan for, develop and deliver investment. We can be fleet of foot to respond to the challenge and work with infrastructure owners and service providers to realise change.

The STB decarbonisation group, led by EEH, ensures best practice is shared and duplication is cut. A current project is to map the approach of England’s local transport authorities towards decarbonising the transport system. Once complete, we’ll have an invaluable insight into variations in approach to/status of transport decarbonisation planning across the country. 

Cutting across silos

Such an understanding of our places is critical. Decarbonisation will be achieved through a place-based approach, one that looks holistically at the opportunities and challenges of a given area and ensures investment there is joined-up across the board, from strategic transport and active travel, through to digital and utilities, housing and the economy.

This ‘whole systems approach’ will cut across the silos which have stymied our efforts in the past to deliver on transport decarbonisation.

But this approach must operate within an agreed national framework which acts as an umbrella for regional implementation. Indeed, our transport strategy recognises the key role that national policies have in enabling the change required to meet the decarbonisation challenge. 

England’s STBs can, and are ready to, support central government through enabling discussions and acting as a conduit. Through regional responses, consensus can be developed as to the best way forward.

EEH’s Pathways to Decarbonisation work with Oxford and Southampton universities highlights the need for demand management/demand reduction policy and programmes in order to achieve net zero carbon from surface transport by 2050. Without a reduction in trip rates and significant mode shift, the legally binding 2050 carbon targets will simply not be met, network congestion and journey times will increase significantly, resulting in substantial impacts on our economic output and quality of life for residents. 

Any proposal to bring forward, for example, road pricing would need to take place at the national level in order to ensure equity and consistency. Similarly, changes to taxation regimes (vehicle excise duty, fuel duty) and fiscal incentivisation (scrappage schemes etc) can be led only by the UK Government in order to avoid creating disparities between regions that impact on relative economic performance. 

Decarbonisation should not be seen as a challenge but rather an opportunity to create better, healthier places and unlock new markets for our businesses. That’s why we must be bold in our ambition, matched with investment in our infrastructure.

England’s STBs complete the jigsaw to provide the regional leadership to deliver decarbonisation of our transport system.

James Golding-Graham is innovation & decarbonisation manager at England’s Economic Heartland

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