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Taking back control: the role of cities in light rail


With cities continuing to grow and more powers being devolved from central government, the way that transport schemes are being developed is changing.  This puts light rail in the driving seat.

There is sometimes scepticism about why central government devolves powers and, on occasions, budgets as well.  Some believe that central government is simply shifting responsibility for austerity and the electoral consequences that could flow.

But the reality is that devolution has opened up new opportunities as well as imposing new responsibilities.  As far as politicians are concerned, the prospect of making substantial change could deliver electoral success.  But only if the opportunities are grasped.

That means considering the way that transport schemes are developed and what their local aims are.  Specifically those focused on the post-Brexit business and economic challenges.

Some of these are related directly to the growth of cities.  Chief amongst these is the growing air quality problem.  Whilst the big plans from central government focus on banning wood burning stoves and phasing our gas hobs, it falls to the local level to take more significant action.

The types of cities that business need are those which offer a good standard of living.  Not just in terms of coffee shops but across schools, GP surgeries, health and recreation facilities, open spaces etc.  They have to be places that people really want to live.  This attracts the employees businesses need with the right level of skills.

We are all aware of transport’s ability to connect people to opportunities across employment and education but schemes often focus on being an idealised solution rather than the way that people really live their lives.

Politicians may be distracted by the promises of new technology but many of these are uncertain, do not solve the mass transit challenge or simply lead to congestion, without the toxic fumes but still with the associated economic costs.

If we start to look at what cities are doing, we can see initiatives around air quality.  We also see a renewed interest in light rail.  The publication of the government’s consultation paper will provide confidence but it is up to cities and, in particular mayors, to drive progress forward.

This will be increasingly through working in partnership.  Ideally, still more work needs to be done in engaging with local communities during the development of schemes rather than consulting them once a scheme has been developed.

But cities also need to think about funding involved, working local businesses but also leveraging Brexit as well, if needed, to get a package together.

Mayors have an opportunity to shape the types of transport schemes they want to address their individual local challenges.  They should make the most of the attention they enjoy from government because they are still quite new and ‘shiny’.  Mayors need help and support and government, at the moment, is prepared to deliver that.  Mayors should make the most of this honeymoon period.

Cities may have more ‘asks’ of government but they will need to work collectively and creatively if they are to be achieved.

My session at the UK Light Rail Conference in July will look at the changing role of cities, some of the work that is already taking place and what the future challenges are likely to be.

DR Stuart Thompson
Head of Public Affairs – BDB Pitmans

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