Why the government must start consulting locals before building

Photo: Getty

It should go without saying that any new infrastructure should have the largest impact on those living within its immediate vicinity. It would, let’s be honest, be a giant waste of money to build a new road or railway line if the locals weren’t being benefited. Yet all too often these large infrastructure projects, particularly those originating from the top echelons of government, have a history of silencing local voices.

One such example of locals being excluded from the decision-making process can be seen in the plans for the High Speed Railway 2.

Not only has the project already been denounced by a 2006 joint report for the Treasury and the Department of Transport, which instead argued for the upgrading of existing rail routes, but 17 local authorities lining the vast majority of the Phase 1 London-Birmingham route are also ardently opposed to the project. These councils, which collectively represent 3.2m people, are using everything at their disposal, from legal challenges to petitions, to put the brakes on long before the first train has departed.

One would think that governmental overruling of local authority opposition is perhaps the result of a larger majority of the general public backing the plans, but alas. Of the almost 55,000 respondents to the initial consultation on HS2, 58 per cent did not feel that a high speed rail network would provide the best value for money for enhancing rail capacity and performance. Less than 30 per cent felt that it would. Despite this, the first phase received parliamentary approval in February last year and surveying work has begun.


This same top-down approach can be seen with the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. This ambitious road-building project is part of a wider scheme to encourage economic development and, most importantly, house building across the “Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc”.

According to proponents, the Expressway is vital for the building of a further one million homes by 2050. But once again, the inhabitants of these regions are not being consulted on the issue. In December last year, Oxfordshire County Council carried a motion by 49 votes to five, with one abstention, criticising the lack of public consultation on the “need for the road or the local impact of any particular proposed route.” Last month the “preferred” route was confirmed by the DfT but there still has been no consultation.

By omitting public input, a vital opportunity to catch any potential oversight is missed and money is misspent, with big projects in under-invested regions dropped in favour of ones nearer the capital. Almost symbolically, on the same day the parliament voted in favour of the third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, a move hugely opposed by local residents, the government rejected the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, which had significant backing from the Welsh government.

But this is hardly surprising when you consider that between 2012 and 2017, London and the South East, regions home to just 32 per cent of England’s population, received almost half its total public spending on transport. And with the new runway and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway on the horizon, the next five years are predicted to similarly favour the area.

A government required to actually listen to the public when it comes to infrastructure investments is a government more likely to distribute wealth fairly. If democracy played its part in these decisions, government ministers would not only be able to act on valuable local knowledge but would also be encouraged to look further afield than the capital and its surrounding regions.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.