The Levelling Up White Paper: plenty of ambition but funding likely to be inadequate

The Levelling Up White Paper: plenty of ambition but funding likely to be inadequate

The UK government recently published its “Levelling up White Paper” (here) which defines 12 missions to guide the UK government. One of those relates to transport and is worth repeating in full:

"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.”

Given the importance of local public transport in enabling towns and cities to provide socially vibrant and economically successful places for people to live and work, it is worth digging beneath the glossy exterior and the plethora of numbers to understand both how large the gap is between London and the rest of the country, and what the sums of money promised in the White Paper actually relate to.

To set the context a little: according to UK government statistics, over the last five years an average of 31%(here) of UK government expenditure on transport in England was in London (with a population share of 16% (here)). Looking at this another way: in monetary terms, UK government spending on transport in London - in 2021 - was approximately £1,475 per person; while in England as a whole it was approximately £746 i.e. government spending per person was nearly double in London compared with England as a whole. To bring levels of spending in England as a whole up to those seen in London would cost approximately an additional £41bn per year.

With this sense of perspective, it’s then worth delving into the detail of what the White Paper promises:

  1. £96bn for delivering the Integrated Rail Plan (over the next 30 years);
  2. £24bn in our busiest roads and motorways (between 2020 and 2025);
  3. £5.7bn in City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements (for five years);
  4. £5bn for buses, cycling and walking networks (over five years).

If those are added together, they amount to approximately £10bn per year, which is a significant amount (although not all of that will be additional to what would have been spent anyway and some of the bus funding has been diverted to provide short-term Covid-support). But is a very long way from what might be needed to deliver ‘London standards’ across the country. In addition, the single largest component of the funding promised in the White Paper is £4.8bn per year for road improvements – so not really the "local public transport" that the White Paper refers to.

How this corresponds to the statement in the White Paper that "investment must take place at scale", the reader can form their own conclusions.

Given the risk of significant disappointment when the funding does not match the rhetoric, what are the options? It seems unlikely that there will be substantial increases in the volume of government funding in the near future given the very large increases in public debt due to the Covid-19 pandemic (for those interested, UK government debt stood at £2.3 trillion (104% of GDP) in year ending March 2021, up from £1.7 trillion (85% of GDP) five years earlier) (here). So part of the answer must be to look at alternative sources of funding, particularly elements of land value capture trialled in London to partly fund Crossrail: if some of the proceeds from the regeneration projects referred to in the White Paper could also be used to fund public transport improvements then that could be one option.

But there are other elements to this debate: there are many things which could be done to create an environment which is more conducive to using public transport, and less to the use of private cars: denser developments, less (and more expensive) parking and more enforced parking restrictions, priority measures for buses, cycling and walking: the list goes on. Greater powers for local leadership should help with all of these factors, but is not a magic bullet: and the lack of meaningful government funding will hamstring many worthwhile initiatives. One final point that may concern many is the requirement that any plans "in line with DfT guidance" as a condition for accessing simplified funding: as the DfT guidance has not yet been revised to reflect the greater focus of the Green Book on place-based solutions, this may act as a substantial barrier to enabling that local leadership to evolve in many places.

Then there’s the question of integration with national networks, but that’s a question for another day.